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Animating Mars 

Spirit and the dream of life

Thursday, Jan 8 2004
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Photo courtesy JPL

At the Pasadena Convention Center on Saturday night, where the Planetary Society was holding a “Wild About Mars” symposium, science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury told the 2,000-strong audience that we are going to Mars “to witness and celebrate the universe.” You have “the gift of life,” he continued, invoking each participant. “You have a responsibility. You are a celebrant.”

We were here, of course, to witness the landing of the Spirit rover. As the craft touched down on the Martian surface, waves of jubilation and relief surged through the NASA hierarchy. After several disastrous failures, both NASA and JPL, which are spearheading the mission, desperately needed a success, and on Saturday they couldn’t have asked for more. Humanity may never set foot on Mars, but we are there now in spirit — the little rover that could is standing in for us all.

Leonine and electrifying despite his evidently frail health, Bradbury did not specifically say that Mars was inhabited, but he did not need to. The implication was clear: As “celebrants” endowed with life and called “to worship,” our mission in space is to witness and celebrate life elsewhere. During a break in the proceedings, a group of schoolchildren were interviewed by a roving television crew; one youngster told the reporter, “Our teacher always tells us to believe in what we believe, and I believe in life on Mars.” Innocent and heartfelt, it was precisely the sentiment that permeated a much slicker media moment, one which set the tone for the evening and speaks volumes about the mission itself.

Spirit’s purpose is to scout for auspicious signs of life. Specifically, it is there to look for evidence that water once flowed across what is now a desert landscape. The presence of liquid water at some time in the past would indicate that life might have evolved on Mars. Spirit and its sibling rover (Opportunity, which is due to arrive on the other side of the red planet later this month) will be searching for chemical signatures associated with long-standing bodies of water. The task of looking for life directly — or at least its fossilized remains — will be taken up by future missions, hopefully at sites identified by the current rovers. But in a sense the matter has already been resolved. In the minds of millions of Mars enthusiasts the red planet is a cradle of life. The only thing that stands in the way of humanity’s first “contact” is a paucity of funds and a lack of imagination on the part of nonbelievers.

The actual rover landing, though monitored via telemetry, was not an event that could be seen by any human being. To fill that lacuna, JPL had commissioned an animation of the craft’s journey through the Martian atmosphere and its deployment on the ground. It was quite simply one of the most subtly engaging cinematic efforts I have experienced this millennium. During the course of this short presentation, Spirit was literally animated; like R2D2 and C3PO, it emerged not as a mere robot but as that infinitely more intriguing species, a mechanical organism. Meticulously based on engineering data, this was a ruthless and utterly successful exercise in anthropomorphism that put to shame the pyrotechnical excesses of The Lord of the Rings and brought to mind the ineffable genius of Toy Story. Do not machines also have a heart, a soul, an inner life? the filmmakers seem to ask. By the end of the sequence there was no question that the answer was in the affirmative. Spirit was not simply a mobile cart with a couple of cameras and a rock-grinding tool, it was our ambassador, with a will and, yes, a spirit of its own.

The very construction of the project was biological in design. During its seven-month journey from Earth, the rover was encased in a capsule — like an interplanetary seed furled up inside a protective pod. After entry into the Martian atmosphere, a cocoon of air bags was deployed to cushion the blow of the crash landing, and in the animation the padded package bounced around on the alien surface like some kind of frenetic jumping bean. We were already in the land of loony toons.

Once the bouncing subsided, the animated pod began a miraculous transformation: The air bags fell away like a husk, and the “petals” (that is the engineers’ term) of the capsule itself opened to reveal the nascent form within. Its chrysalis thus cracked, the cartoon rover now began to awaken from its slumber. Its winglike solar panels unfolded; the mast of its neck unstretched; finally, the camera mount/head cocked up, and I could have sworn it blinked in the alien light. If it didn’t in practice, it certainly did in dramatic terms. The total effect was now so complete you could almost feel it breathing. By the time the animatic rover rolled off its base and sallied forth into the landscape, it was taking my heart with it.

 

What to make of this curious coupling of science and fiction, of precision engineering and animagic? The answer may be found in the writings of Jean Baudrillard and his conception of the simulacrum. The literal purpose of the Spirit animation was to simulate the phenomenon of the actual rover landing, a real physical event that was veiled from our view. But as Baudrillard astutely surmised, simulation exceeds mere representation. In its apparent fidelity to facts, a simulation often becomes more real than reality itself, ultimately supplanting our conception of what is truly there. In the JPL simulation, the rover is subtly endowed with life, leading the viewer ineluctably to an expectation of vitality in the actual physical machine — which is merely a battery-powered robot.

In the animation, the unfurling took less than five minutes, including the triumphant sally at the end; in physical reality, the process required several hours, and the rover will not move off its base for nine whole days. When it does, it will inch along at the sluglike pace of 125 feet per day. As Baudrillard would say, reality has been preceded by the seductive excess of the simulacrum, whose heightened stimulatory power has become more real than the thing itself.

We are here in the realm of the hyperreal. The ultimate purpose, however, is not to animate the rover itself, but rather Mars. By sending Spirit off into the landscape like some frisky new hatchling, the JPL animation leads us figuratively up the garden path. As the simulated rover heads off toward the Martian horizon, one cannot help but anticipate further installments filled with adventure and fun and future friends.

That we were to construe the rover as some kind of organism was confirmed just minutes into NASA’s post-landing press conference. “The data team’s first task is to assess the health of the rover,” a JPL representative explained. “The rover is healthy,” we were later informed to jubilant cheers from scientists and Pasadena audience alike. The “health” of the rover serves not merely as an index of the mission’s robustness, but of the dream itself. While Spirit “lives,” the dream prevails. If life resides in the figurations of our own imaginations, as all animation subversively implies, then might we not find life on Mars? It has certainly been found in stranger places — in toy boxes and tea sets, in lumps of clay and pieces of string.

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