Countdown to Mars!
July 27th, 2012

Are you as sick and tired of this interminable electioneering as I am? Well, then, I suggest you take a deep breath, switch off the telly and lift your eyes to the heavens. As I write this, mankind’s most audacious planetary probe ever is closing in on Mars, some 350 million miles distant. On August 5th, provided a thousand or things go exactly right, a six-wheeled rover the size of a pickup truck will settle softly onto a fairly small elliptical landing zone—I don’t know exactly how small, but let’s say it’s about the size of a football field. This after a breathtaking descent through the thin Martian atmosphere beneath the largest hypersonic parachute ever deployed. But that’s just one phase; the landing will also be accomplished via retro rockets and a detachable bungee cord.


A couple of years back I was privileged to watch as the Curiosity Rover underwent final assembly in the clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Imagine that your car is being worked on by a team of masked surgeons wielding sterilized Snap-On tools, and you get the picture. And to think: This is a machine that will be leaving earth and will NEVER return! I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

I count myself fortunate to be living in such exciting times. How far we’ve come from the horse-and-buggy days of my boyhood! (Well, it’s true our neighbors all had cars, but we weren’t that prosperous and had to get around as best we could.) In those days we knew nothing about Mars, thanks largely to B-Grade science fiction movies such as MARS ATTACKS!

“Mars is almost as big as Texas; maybe it’s got monsters!”

We now know that Mars is bigger than Texas and doesn’t have monsters, and we’re equally certain that many, many years will pass before the first earthling sets foot on Mars. That is, provided congress decides that continued interplanetary exploration is worth the investment (Roughly, the same amount of money it’ll take to make yet another Bat Man movie).

But here’s the good news: My son Alex is part of a JPL team that has created an interactive game that will allow you to test your skills at landing the Curiosity Rover. It’s a free download for the Xbox 360 and employs something called Kinect. (Don’t ask me—I’m still trying to rescue the princess from Bowser.)

I would give you the hyperlink if only I knew how to do that. But if you go to NASA’s website or Google certain key words, I’m sure you can find it. Oh, and don’t forget to take along your 3-D glasses!

-Richard Menzies