Good news: Mars was once habitable. Bad news: it will kill you now.


NASA sent out a press release with two Mars-related news items yesterday. Whether this was an attempt to bury the bad news, you decide.

First, the good news: An erstwhile freshwater lake in what’s now Gale Crater, whose rocks the Curiosity rover sampled, wasn’t too acidic to have harbored life maybe 4 billion years ago. If Mars could have spawned life in the short period of time it was habitable, it stands to reason that it also happened somewhere among the billions of habitable-zone planets elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Or better, that life most certainly happened, and is happening, almost everywhere.

The bad news: Curiosity did radiation measurements, too, and the place has devolved into a rusty killer. From NASA:

Cosmic rays from outside our solar system and energetic particles from the sun bombarded the surface at Gale Crater with an average of 0.67 millisieverts per day from August 2012 to June 2013, according to a report by Don Hassler of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and co-authors. For comparison, radiation exposure from a typical chest X-ray is about 0.02 millisievert. That 10-month measurement period did not include any major solar storms affecting Mars, and more than 95 percent of the total came from cosmic rays.

Results from the surface-radiation monitoring provide an additional piece of the puzzle for projecting the total round-trip radiation dose for a future human mission to Mars. Added to dose rates Curiosity measured during its flight to Mars, the Mars surface results project a total round-trip dose rate for a future human mission at the same period in the solar cycle to be on the order of 1,000 millisieverts.

Long-term population studies have shown exposure to radiation increases a person’s lifetime cancer risk. Exposure to a dose of 1,000 millisieverts is associated with a 5 percent increase in risk for developing fatal cancer. NASA’s current career limit for increased risk for its astronauts currently operating in low-Earth orbit is 3 percent. The agency is working with the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies to address the ethics, principles and guidelines for health standards for long duration and exploration spaceflight missions.


So you’re getting, on average, the equivalent of about 33 chest X-rays a day you spend on Mars, and that’s during a quiet sun cycle (cosmic rays are from distant stars). A good solar storm would pile it on.

I don’t see this as a major issue for human jaunts to Mars. Lots of folks would still sign up. Hell, were my kids older, I would sign up. But for those with dreams of long-term stays — not to speak of geoengineering the Red Planet into another blue one — game over.

You need a magnetosphere to redirect cosmic rays and space weather (the official term for the dangerous stuff the the sun kicks out with coronal mass ejections and the like). The magnetosphere is why, rather than us taking cosmic-ray and solar-storm shots to the corneas and chromosomes, we get the Northern Lights instead (sweet deal!). You need a molten metallic dynamo to act as a gigantic bar magnet to generate a magnetosphere. Mars cooled off and the bar magnet lost its mojo, leaving the poor thing exposed to stellar bullying. Mars is broke and we can’t fix it.

This takes nothing away from Mars as an object of study or exploration destination (though I would argue it strengthens the hands of who prefer to have this sort of thing done by robots, which need no heavy shielding and rarely die of carcinomas). But without lead blankets, it’s a death sentence for settlers.

Deep Impact Goes Dark

Deep Impact impact

A bit of humanity touches a comet, July 4, 2005

The small team still running Deep Impact, in orbit for going on nine years, on Aug. 8 lost touch with the spacecraft. Deep Impact smacked the comet Tempel 1 on Independence Day 2005 and went on to swing by a second comet, Hartley 2, and then hunt for planets. It was probably working on its master’s degree on the side.

NASA sent out a press release on Friday. The spacecraft had, as far as they could tell, gotten itself turned around, probably such that the solar panels stopped drinking in sun, so the heaters that keep the electronics and hydrazine thrusters limiber stopped working, so Deep Impact became, in effect, a frozen spacecraft — a comet of a spacecraft.

Deep Impact orbits the sun, so it won’t be crashing back to Earth as most orbiters do. DI, as they called it, whose job was to help us figure out how our solar system formed, has become a tiny, permanent body of that solar system.

Deep Impact's place in the solar system as of today and, somewhere along that red arc, over the next billion years or so. (JPL)

I saw the press release but was on deadline and had to make a Costco run (strawberries, granola, the obligatory rotisserie chicken) and so on. And then Saturday I decided to add a 1,000 yards of sprints to the six mile run (why?) and was a bit worn out, and then the evening birthday party for the daughter of a friend turning 10, and then it was late. This morning, there’s the Down Syndrome walk and drywall hanging at a friend’s up in Boulder who came within about 20 feet of having their Pinebrook Hills house erased by a mud slide during the flooding. You get the idea.

Acoustic testing - Deep Impact

Deep Impact in acoustic testing at Ball Aerospace. Ball hired Maryland Sound to bring in speakers and blast the spacecraft with enough sound to kill a man (or, I assume, a woman). The schedule was tight because the speakers had to move on to a Hall & Oates concert. (Ball Aerospace)

But I wrote a book about this mission and the company, Ball Aerospace, that built the spacecraft and instruments that enabled it (in tandem with JPL, I hasten to add). And death is a milestone. But until last night, I was having a helluva time figuring out how I felt about it. Then Jim Baer, a brilliant optical engineer who helped design the telescopes on DI (at the time, the big one was the largest ever to leave Earth orbit), dropped me an email. I hadn’t been in touch for probably two years. He wrote:

All good things must come to an end.

We did have a great ride, and it became a great story, thanks to you.


This is sort of typical of Ball Aerospace people, who have had, for going on 60 years now, a tendency to care.

I wrote Jim back:

Great to hear from you, man. Thanks for the note. I’m trying to figure out how I feel about DI and do up a short blog post and am having a hard time conjuring up a ton of emotion. I think it’s because you guys did such a phenomenal thing that so exceeded all reasonable expectations. It would be like mourning Secretariat. It was great to have had the opportunity to meet people like you and so many others at Ball Aerospace – such extraordinary people.

So I don’t mourn, and I am grateful.

Deep Impact's flyby spacecraft looks back to the Comet Tempel 1 after impact (NASA/JPL/University of Maryland)

Kepler, 2009-2013

The most important spacecraft since the Hubble Space Telescope has been felled by a couple of reaction wheels that stubbornly held to their predicted useful lives, NASA reports.

If distant planets and their stars were this obvious, Kepler wouldn't have needed remotely the same pointing accuracy.

Something about Kepler, despite its stubborn refusal to return pretty pictures for our screen savers, prompts those with a taste for science and any literary pulse to wax poetic.

I have been guilty of this, though for good reason. I mean, scientists using the spacecraft have found planets roughly the size and mass of Earth in roughly an orbit that allows water to be water and not steam or ice (about the only precondition for life scientists seem to have been able to establish). Before Kepler, we knew of a few vulcan Jupiters, boiling balls of gas skimming their stars. Now it’s clear that star formation comes part and parcel with planet formation. Meaning that about every star you see hosts orbiting rocks. Not to Carl Sagan out you, but there are billions of billions of stars in our galaxy, and billions and billions of galaxies. So do the math.

Kepler tells us definitively: we’re not alone.

It also tells us we’re not unique, and if uniqueness is a proxy for importance, we’re not all that important. At least not remotely as important as many of us have come to believe.

I felt a particular connection to this spacecraft because I watched it being built, its 15-foot-long telescope standing erect in a Ball Aerospace high-bay clean room in Boulder. At its base was a $6 million, 95-megapixel sensor. Many of the team that build the Deep Impact spacecraft I detailed in the book moved on to Kepler. About 200 Ball Aerospace engineers and techs worked on Kepler.

The mission, for which NASA Ames Research Center scientist Bill Borucki fought for literally decades, devolved into an over-budget mess. It was yet another example of intelligent human beings grossly underestimating the difficulty of doing something new and different. Monte Henderson, a key source for the book and now a friend, was the project manager for a while, only to be sacrificed at NASA’s altar a year or so into his tenure.

Part of what made Kepler tough was aiming it. Kepler’s had to maintain a pointing accuracy within about a millionth of a degree for more or less four years (the need to reorient to send data back to Earth on occasion complicated this). Imagine being able to hold a laser steadily enough to a penny 700 miles away. Imagine doing that for months on end. That’s essentially what Kepler did, because that’s what it took to detect a planet occluding the dim the light of one of the 150,000 distant stars it stared at.

“The stability requirements on Kepler are extreme compared to any other space-based mission,” Henderson told me back in 2007.

The reaction wheels, four of them, were among the the fonts of that stability — they subtly adjusted Kepler’s aim. What used to be Goodrich made them. Others had since had problems with them.

Reaction wheels are moving components, which tend to be the great bugaboos of space engineering. These spun up and down at 1,000 to 4,000 RPMs. Two still do. Two now don’t. When you’re trying to drill a penny from 700 miles, you need three reaction wheels. So Kepler will hunt planets, at least in the sense that it did (NASA is open to the idea of other applications demanding lesser pointing accuracy for the spacecraft), no more.

But this spacecraft changed the world — or at least should have changed the world — like few human creations have.


Monster in the drink

A video grab of the Dragon capsule approaching the International Space Station on Oct. 10. The capsule splashed down off the California coast on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. (Courtesy NASA/SpaceX)

As I write this, SpaceX’s Dragon space capsule is on a boat, having splashed down 250 miles off the California coast on Sunday. Monsters loom off both coasts, then: Frankenstorm to the east, Dragon to the west.

The Dragon capsule splashed down with 1,673 pounds of International Space Station stuff, including the first scientific cargo to come home since the space shuttle program ended in July 2011. Sending home scientific experiments isn’t trivial: the ISS is a national laboratory, remember.

Private companies have been critical to NASA since the very beginning, so I don’t feel that singling out SpaceX for its being a private company doing “commercial space” is all that meaningful. The space shuttle was created by contractors. What’s amazing to me, though is that SpaceX built the rocket and the capsule and got it all to work more or less flawlessly with a staff of 1,800 people (Boeing, though they build airplanes, too, employs about 160,000). And while SpaceX does some contracting, a lot of it was done in-house.

Musk talks about his preference for tight teams in his recent Q&A with WIRED editor Chris Anderson. He also talks about his long-term goal of creating a rapidly reusable launch vehicle (that’s aerospeak for rocket) to drive down costs to the point that a Mars mission would be possible and space in general far more accessible. With Musk, the long-term isn’t usually very long. The first I’d heard him on the topic (though probably not the first time he talked about it) was at a University of Colorado event he spoke at with New Horizons Pluto-mission leader Alan Stern in May 2011. I wouldn’t bet against Musk getting it done.

‘Jars’ wins Colorado Book Award

My book, From Jars to the Stars, won the 2011 Colorado Book Award for History at the annual Colorado Humanities and Center for the Book ceremony in Aspen last Friday. This is particularly gratifying to me because, being the history category, it’s an indication that the book is readable.

I’ve found myself trying to explain this — no, really, it’s not that technical… you can  handle it… it’s narrative nonfiction, a yarn, not a science textbook or engineering manual…  Now I can just say, well, it won the Colorado Book Award for History.

From Jars to the Stars

"From Jars to the Stars" now comes with a shiny gold sticker.

My nine-year-old daughter Lily having had a skating competition in Colorado Springs and thereby tying up her mother, I brought Maya, my six-year-old, along. I bought her off with a lot of swimming in the immense Glenwood Springs pool (we stayed in Glenwood, Aspen being booked up) and, on the way home, a wild couple of rides at the Breckenridge Peak 8 fun park.

I had to buy Maya off twice because she suffered two formal, adult-filled events. First the ceremony itself at Aspen Meadows on Friday; then a talk I gave to the Colorado Humanities board at the Glenwood Springs Residence Inn on Saturday. I provided a bit of backstory on the book. I’ve pasted it below — it’s not really a transcript as I largely winged it, but it is what I wrote up in advance.

Afterward, I asked Maya what she thought about the talk, which ran about 17 minutes.

“No offense, dad, but it was a little long,” she said. “And boring.”

But witnessing it all must have planted some deeper curiosity regarding the odd creature who sired her. In the car on the way home, not long after a parade of about 30 Lamborghinis ripped by us as our minivan lumbered up Vail pass, Maya asked: “What’s your favorite thing to do? Talk to people? Or drink beer with people?”

The latter, Maya. Definitely the latter.


Colorado Humanities Board talk
6/23/12, Saturday, Glenwood Springs

To Jars to the Stars
What I learned from writing a space book

I’d like to talk a bit about how From Jars to the Stars came to be and then share a couple of nonscientific insights into the creative process.

You learn a good deal when you write a book – about yourself as much as the topics. Many of you aren’t writers per se, but I think some of the lessons apply to ordinary civilians, too.

First, a bit of history.

–         Covered the Deep Impact mission as science and environment writer for the Boulder Daily Camera. Saw the spacecraft 1x.

  • Chasing press releases/press conferences.
  • Seeing bags under the engineers’ eyes, was struck by how hard this all must be.
  • Was thinking the book would be a deep dive into a single space mission, a “Soul of the New Machine” for a space mission. So not a history book, really.
  • Then fell into the history bit and realized it was legend and decided it needed to be put to rest.

–         Landed an agent through Mike Cote, then the city editor at the Boulder Daily Camera. A lovely woman named Barbara Bova, who helped me amass probably 20 rejection letters. She came very close with the U.S. Naval Institute Press – editor liked it, marketing worried about sales prospects. I did not realize at this point that roughly one space book has ever sold well – Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”

–          Got a Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at CU, in which I studied renewable energy, but kept forging ahead on this thing as Barbara continued to pitch editors. I had by this time taken so many people’s time and became so engrossed in the story and the quality of these people that I decided to just do it. Because I realized that:

  • History was repeating itself in a sort of 3 act play
  • I realized that if you understood Ball Aerospace, you understood the history of space exploration.
  • I realized that aerospace engineers behind these spacecraft are quiet heroes, and that if you understood space engineers, you understood engineers in general, and that it’s a noble profession full of people who like to solve tough problems and just build things
  • I realized that hat you could get engineers to talk quite candidly at Conor O’Neill’s Pub in boulder, aided by a large nachos and a few Guinnesses.
  • I realized that writing for a small paper like the Camera, you always have excuses. I covered science and the environment. The Denver Post or the Rocky Mountain News routinely ran enterprise stories – fat features with gorgeous art and graphics – of my competitors. At the Camera, you filed daily stories and picked away at enterprise stuff on the margins. I always had an excuse. With a book, there’s no excuse. You’ve got time to give it your best shot. It was a chance to see if I had the goods. The Ball history was, I felt, a great story, and if it didn’t turn into a good book, it would be on me.

Then Barbara died of cancer. An old friend, a brilliant designer and writer David Barringer, convinced me to just do it myself with his help. I figured if no one was going to publish it, I’d create a publisher to do it.

  • This was an enormous amount of effort. Coaxing Dave to do the work (I paid him, but not much), incorporating Earthview Media, setting up bank accounts, applying for sales tax and retail/use/lodgers tax  licenses (hanging on the office wall of my office, which is a converted dining room); working with Edwards Brothers of Ann Arbor, Michigan to get them printed (offset, not print-on-demand). All the marketing, the press releases and otherwise jonesing for media mentions, the business cards, letterhead… the creation of E-books in Kindle and EPUB versions, which I did myself…  just insane, really.
  • Then Saia, the trucking company, dropped off roughly 2,250 of these things on 2 shipping pallets. Maya, here, and her sister Lily, thought it was pretty great, climbing all over this corrugated plateau. I found it rather terrifying. There were 32 books that may or may not ever sell in each of those boxes.

So that’s how this all came about. Now for a bit about what I learned that might be relevant to your lives. The first thing has to do with the “morning person” vs. “night owl” myth.

The work process

I would submit that before there were electric lights we were all morning people anyway – forged into our DNA while were still furry.

I’m not saying night owls don’t exist, it’s just that our brains work differently early and late, and most likely, you’re going to get more done early.

I got up at 4:30 a.m. while I was writing this thing. Actually getting out of the bed was beastly; once you’re up, though, you’re up. I’d fire up a mint tea and sit down at the keyboard. I found that in the morning, my brain can handle much more complexity – you can juggle several cognitive balls, which you need to do when trying to thread together a coherent story line from events that, in the case of From Jars to the Stars, were happening at the same time. You can prioritize better, too – you can see what’s relevant enough to stay on the periphery of the story and what needs to be cut. A good 300-page book, after all, is as tightly edited as a newspaper story – nothing extraneous, everything bunched around the narrative thread.

You can turn great writing into tripe by not killing your babies. I’m not talking about infanticide, but rather about whacking everything that’s there because you particularly fancy it despite it not quite fitting.

My early drafts From Jars to the Stars were full of babies – little things I thought were interesting. I had the benefit of this friend David Barringer, who beat the hell out of me and focused the thing. It’s a good 10,000 words shorter than the first draft.

So we’re all morning people. Morning could be 5 a.m. or noon, depending on when you get to bed, by the way. So the bottom line is: Do the hard stuff first.

But we’re all night owls, too.

At night, you’re fried from running around all day, commuting, working, ferrying around kids, , just living life. High-level conceptual and organizational work is possible, but it’s way less efficient, and you’re more likely than not going to find yourself in the middle of an story about Euro 2012 without being able to remember how you got there.

But at night I find myself to be more creative in the micro-sense.  I tend to come up with “big ideas” or funny turns or synthesis of diverse notions that have been swimming around my subconscious. When I give talks about From Jars to the Stars, I wrap it up with what I call my “Carl Sagan moment.”

Deep Impact’s image of the impactor atomizing against the belly of comet Tempel 1 belongs with a handful of photos depicting just how far earthly evolution has come in the 4.6 billion years since the ices and organic chemicals of comets began agglomerating into our rocky planet. In such an exclusive album belong the Apollo 8 “Earthrise”; the Voyager “pale blue dot” image of Earth from beyond the orbit of Pluto; Cassini’s shot of Saturn aglow, backlit by the sun; and any one of a slew of images the Mars Exploration Rovers have snapped of their own caterpillar tracks on Martian soil. To capture such beauty took some of our most advanced technologies, some of our brightest people, exquisite coordination, enormous riches, and, perhaps most importantly, a collective desire to explore. These photos are our pyramids.

The original version of that I’d scribbled in the dark on a notepad next to my bed at like 2 a.m. So I guess you could say the memorable stuff emerges from a tired mind. To take it back to the caveman analogy, I think the mind somehow has been trained to the point of genetic predisposition to open up at night, maybe to allow it to envision better stories around the flickering campfire.

The Spreadsheet

But make no mistake: Literary creativity – at least nonfiction literary creativity – demands organization.  I started my career at the global IT consulting firm known as Accenture, and developed a soft spot for spreadsheets. I used them in writing the book .

My master spreadsheet for “from Jars to the Stars” had 337 kilobytes of text, which is a lot of text. I had 10 tabs. One was for numbers – every calculation I made is in there – that a ton of TNT imparts 3.9583 gigajoules of energy, that an adult male standing on comet Tempel  1 would weigh about as much as a penny does on Earth. Others tabs are full of Web links, cross-references, things I had to verify, even “deep thoughts.” Most of those didn’t make the book, though I parked the “Carl Sagan Moment” there and it did survive, though heavily edited.

Smoking-Gauloises-while-wearing-a-beret sort of creativity is useless without a foundation of organization. To succeed in writing you have to balance literary creativity and mundane time and task management. One of the biggest benefits of doing this is to create a parking place for relevant distractions while you’re trying to write. By relevant distraction I mean, when you’re writing about something that happened in the 1950s, you think – ah, that’s relevant to something that happened in the 1990s! It’s important, but if you stop what you’re doing in the 1950s, you’ll lose the thread and slow the whole process down When I show this speradsheet to other writers, they shake their heads, because many writers have a visceral fear of spreadsheets and numbers, which is a shame.

“The Bad Idea”

Dan Baum, the former New Yorker writer and author, came to CU to talk to us Scripps fellows right around the time I’d decided to forge ahead with the book. Baum is a freelance writer and author (most notably, of “Nine Lives,” about New Orleans), and is relentlessly focused on financial return for his efforts. This is doubly important in that his wife is his editor. Dan Baum is a person, and also a mini-brand for him and Margaret. My wife’s in IT; if I have a rough month, we still eat. I mentioned what I was up to in writing From Jars to the Stars essentially on spec and he shook his head said, “Bad idea.”

Baum was right – From Jars to the Stars didn’t sell wildly, cost me thousands of hours at what worked out to sub-minimum-wage pay, and lord knows what opportunity cost. I could’ve written two or three different books by now had I started with a moderate commercial success.

But I also could have written zero books, and given that I’ve got two young girls for whom I’m the primary caregiver, plus paying freelance work that beckons, that’s the more likely scenario.

So even if it was a bad idea, I’m glad I did it. My wife and I get by just fine. I learned a lot. I answered the question that stalks all decent writers – am I capable of writing a book? It’s an energizing experience, somehow, despite it being so exhausting.  Honors like being nominated for a Colorado Book Award, not to mention winning one, have opened up opportunities like getting up here and talking to folks like you – opportunities that don’t come often in this life. And I thank you for it.