Mission to Mars Part 1: Curiosity will be the death of us all


They had lowered the shades over the big window as much to block out the excessive and red-orange sunlight as to get some reprieve from the mystery of just what was going on with the rover out there.  Carl and Jamie were engaged in their daily ritual of silence.  They sat at an ultra-light-polycarbonate table and sipped very weak green tea from mugs so thin the edges could accidently get caught between your teeth, especially the angled canines.  The overhead fan was small like the ones in a train or airplane and made the sound of an object traveling through space.

Camera1- Zoom out for Wide Shot – breakfast scene. The shades rose slightly of their own accord.  The deep amber-red light saturated the room again, shining through the blue and orange food trays. The atmospheric data screen powered up and the window shade opened to three quarters of its height to let yet more solar radiation in.  It was going to get very hot.  There was no one to report the malfunction to. It was becoming increasingly clear that without earth based tech support they had very little control.

Tim and Natalie were sleeping; they were on the night shift.  Jamie lifted her clear nano-fibre mug just in front of her mouth and trepidatiously broke the silence.

“Tim might be able to do something about the rover when he gets up.  He’s pretty tech, maybe he can at least just shut it down.”

Carl looked into his mug, he had not spoken yet today. There was no residue to study, the tea was made from a tiny sprinkle of powder that seemed to perfectly dissolve.  The rover was now fully visible out the big window, it had the mast cam  extended and pointed at them; it was driving backwards away from their structure, making a wide arc up a gentle slope.

Protocol which remained in place since the rovers scientific NASA mission in the early 10s had put it into an autonomous operation mode.  The earth-mars solar conjunction[i] lasted about twenty five days and during this time the robot would run a series of tests, operated by artificial intelligence guided by its mission objectives.  In the past, when NASA was in control, it would simply sit still and monitor atmospheric data. Since MarsOne[ii] had purchased and reprogrammed the rover, it was still mostly operated from ground control but the producers wanted to make the most of it during the Solar Convergence so they had it set up to work on motion tracking and artificial intelligence.  In a typically rushed way they got together for a lunch with the camera techs to set up a shooting schedule and chose some locations.  At the last minute it was the executive producers call to let the computer modify it if there was anything in particular to film or otherwise observe.

The four-person crew was told that while they were without a direct link to earth, they were supposed to just keep making the show themselves. Act normally, face the cameras for conversation, be quirky. The interior cameras would still be motion tracking, everything was supposed to be relatively the same just without the feedback.  The lab computers were storing up copious amounts of video data to send back as soon as they had a signal.

Curiosity, they had said, was going to do some light roving, and collect b-reel planet shots.  Vast empty Martian landscapes. Far-off exterior shots of Base Camp.  As no one was supposed to leave the habitat for this time there was no need for it to be focused on them.

Once the rover reached the zenith of its dolly shot, it lowered the mast cam almost to the ground, leveled the lens at the window of the habitat and began to drive forward for a low-altitude-fly-over effect.  From this angle the rocks looked like massive boulders and the mast swiveled back and fourth to avoid them.

Carl was standing in the big window watching.  The rover was moving at near full speed.  It reached the staging area in front of the window and still driving, it raised the mast up in a smooth arc.  The camera panned up his body, on the other side of the glass and stopped where the lens was eye to eye with him. Carl could see the aperture change as it zoomed in on his eye.  Jamie put down her mug and watched the stand off.  Carl was frozen, knowing that this was all going to be on tv and, that the robot has a rock vaporizing laser. It could vaporize rocks[iii]. Simultaneously mystifying and terrifying.  If it could make rock into gas what would it do to him?

Jamie got up and went over to the window, the heat of the sun made her bare legs tingle.  Camera1 zoomed in on them from behind, there were more noises of the other cameras adjusting for multiple perspectives.  At least four angles of the scene were being recorded.  Curiosity reversed slowly and panned the mast cam back and forth, Carl, Jamie, Carl, Jamie before zooming out for a shot of them both and driving away.

The small satellite could be seen in the morning and evening when the sun reflected its light to the surface.  The satellite relay was still active even though no communication was being received by earth.

Outside, Camera5 tracked the rovers movements through the orange dust.  It was circumnavigating the habitat to the left again.  Carl spoke.

“Rover behavior has been erratic since the solar convergence began. It looked me in the eye, Jamie, you know, the MastCam can’t focus on something that close.“

“this is all pre-programmed by earth team, it could be using different sensors, are you sure it cant see up close?”

“It has a rock vaporizing laser.”

Jamie remembered to fully vocalize her thoughts, like the producers and scene coach had said.

“Enough with you and your rock vaporizing laser paranoia”

She glanced over at Cam2 for a dramatic look.

One of the sleeping pods opened and Natalie squirmed out.  The sleeping pods were in the small hallway between the main room which was the kitchen and living quarters for all four of them and the lab where the computers and equipment were kept.  The lab had an airlock that led to the rover bay with the one they could ride and a kind of closet where the space suits were.  Natalie appeared to be only wearing a baby blue tee shirt.  The producers loved this stuff.  She just stood there confused in the light.

According to the colour on the panel either Tim wasn’t in his pod, or he was dead.  No, he wasn’t in there.  She touched the panel, not in there.  This was dreaming again.  She was dreaming.  The whole mission was mixed in her mind with dream imagery.  It was seamless and real. Mars wasn’t a solid baseline reality so it blended very freely.  She was the only one who didn’t think about the tv.  She had stopped caring once she was launched on the one-way trip.  This was freedom, 800 square feet of freedom.

Her hair was tussled and messy and she felt the side of her face.  Curiosity passed the porthole going at an incredible speed.  The dust hung for sixty two percent longer than it would on earth[iv], the long slow suspension created a ring around the base that was renewed with every lap.  Slowly Natalie realized she wasn’t asleep.  The orange food tray glowed luminescent with the bright light form the big window

“You guys seen Tim?”

Tim was pretty far away.  He had the ride-on rover and was skirting the edge of a massive rift valley.  The display in his helmet said the rover had forty five percent power.  He was going full speed and driving on manual to avoid linking to the base computer.  This wasn’t supposed to be possible but he had been thinking about taking the rover out by himself for a while and had figured out a hardware way to get around the data link; he unplugged all the antennae.  The rift valley looked accessible from the other side.  Tim spoke out loud for the helmet to record.

“I see a vast lake in this valley and a broad leaf forest, waterfalls cascading down the cliffs with their cooling spray.” He was gesturing dramatically and he pulled himself up so he sat on the backrest of the seat.  The rover seemed to be autopiloting now.

“I see groups of children, maybe a summer camp with cabins where they sleep and canoes on the shore.  When I was young I would wake up there would be dew in the grass.  I see dew, I can see the archery range, we will play capture the flag across the rockslide and sneak through the cat tail reeds with muck in my toes”

There was a dry riverbed at the head of the canyon and he had to drive along side for a while before there was a place that looked like the rover could get across.  Taking over control again, he sat in the front and descended the bank at a sharp angle.  The bottom was deep with dust and small rocks, the wheels spun and he lurched forward slowly.  Tim swiveled the wheel back and forth to gain traction and thrust his own weight forward.  The other bank was steep and with only dust to push against the rover couldn’t climb it.  Thirty six percent battery remained.  He got out and tried to lift the front wheel up onto the bank.

Natalie was still walking around in only her tee shirt and underwear and she did slow laps of the small living quarters in the opposite direction that Curiosity lapped the habitat outside.  Carl was in the lab at a computer terminal looking for the rover.  No signal.  Jamie was making a video log entry in the booth.  They were all required to make a daily entry and encouraged to tell earth their candid thoughts away from the others.

“Day sixty-five, two days into the solar convergence.  Tim has taken the rover out. I’m worried, we can’t find it anywhere.  Curiosity is acting weird and Carl still refuses to talk about anything besides the rock vaporizing laser. “ She bit her lip and brushed her hair off her forehead.

“I love Tim but, maybe I’ve been a little distant recently, I hope he’s not mad at me, I hope he’s ok.” She was crying now, she knew it was wonderful, pure gold teaser trailer material, maybe they’d start the season with it.  She looked to the side, and thought: furtive glance and then she really let go with the crying.

“Oh god, we are so alone out here, I need Tim to be ok, we need a plan”

Jamie took a deep breath and leaned into the camera, she wiped the ears off her cheeks and smoothed her hair.  This was what it was all about.  The booth opened and Jamie strode out and announced that they should have a meeting.  Natalie was over by the big window staring out into the distance, she nodded but didn’t turn around.  Carl came out of the lab and shook his head.

“I can’t find him, he’s disappeared…”

Natalie wandered over to the counter and pushed the button for green tea.  She pushed it three more times and dissolved it into half a mug of hot water.  Jamie was at the table with a tablet display marking off coordinates on a map for the search.  Carl’s eyes narrowed as he tracked Curiosity across the big window and came to rest on Natalie.  Natalie stirred her tea.

“We can still connect to the relay sat imagery, put some recent pictures up on the big screen and just look for the rover; its pretty white. “

Jamie responded almost instantly.

“Make it so” and Natalie took her tea over to the lab.  Carl watched her leave the room and then watched the rover make another pass.

“What will we do when we find him?”

“One of us has to take the other personal rover and go get him”

The atmospheric data screen lit up and became roughly pixilated before switching to an image of the area around base camp.  The rover was easy to spot.  Jamie jumped up from the table, looked right at Cam2 and said: “What the fuck is he doing out there?”

Carl asked the computer to power up the spare ride-on rover.  It refused the request as it was supposed to be confirmed by earth. Natalie now had the relay sat sending live video as it passed over.  They now had a few minuets of intermittent video with each pass.  Tim was out of the dry river bed and making his way along the opposite side of the canyon.




There is a profound loneliness to be being an old-school theoretical physicist and believing in the singularity of our universe.  They call me a modernist , the multiverse crowd that is so much in vogue these days.

There is a soft glow from the east, it filters through the skylight and onto the floor.  The thirty-fourth annual meeting of the universe is happening in a rather stylish event space in the pacific-north-west.  The building looks like a Shubert, all glass and wood.  Huge Douglas firs tower over us, the ocean is detectable by smell.  There is a debate as fervent as any of the week on the nature of the multiverse, and weather or not our universe and the others exist in the same time.  If they don’t, it is gong to be very hard to detect the others.

Sandra was outside walking among the sword ferns, tracing the cedar plank boardwalk through the woods.  She had a notebook with yellow pages under her arm and she was looking at the trees and the way the sun filtered down through them.  She was at most of these things; the theoretical physics conferences.  She was a gravity expert as much as experts can be said to exist on subjects we do not yet grasp the fundamentals of.  I think it her dreamy demeanor that allows her to hold such a position.  The way that its alright or even required of us to not make sense when there is an otherworldliness about the subject.  There was something about the way she ignored keynote speakers and seemed to be keeping a numerical tally of unobservable phenomena on her notebook that made me want to know her.

It must have been the conference because that night I had this dream that I was looking at the news paper and on the front page there was an article with a large picture and a caption that read: other universes found behind Jupiter.  It was absurd but it seemed real in the dream.  I was crushed.  They were right, my world became just one among many, the laws of physics, the fundamentals of matter and space and time would not be the same in these other universes.  There could be, well, anything out there and worst of all there was a photograph of this universe in full colour on the front page of the paper.  Everyone would know.

On Tuesday morning I attended a talk called “Space in the other times: a multiverse perspective on the nature of matter”, I was looking for a chance to pose a serous rebuttal but kept coming up against the same problem.  It is incredibly hard to disprove something for which there is not observational evidence.  In many ways I am defeated by the weakness of the other side, there is so little to cling to that I cannot get any traction.  Sandra was there.  I let my eyes un-focus so that everything became blurry and nebulous, the shapes and colours of things blended into each other.  Things started to warble around and the light from the window exploded off the desk.  I could hear a background buzz of the fans and electricity in the room.  Diagrams were put up on the projector but I maintained my lack of focus.  I could remember a MacDonald’s in London England where they served lamb burgers and the shops around it.  I thought about the desert neat Tucson and the weeds that grew by the roadside, the ubiquitousness of barbed wire in arid climates. 

“There was a time when we thought that the earth was surrounded by crystalline spheres, and a time when it was hypothesized that turtles held the planet up, only it wasn’t a planet, it was a dish or a disk and the oceans poured off the edge.  Plato thought that the stars were pinpricks of light through a huge cloth and the sun rotated around the earth”

We ate catered salad and chickpea curry for lunch in the dining room.   I was sitting with some rather old scholars from MIT when I saw her at the coffee.

“We believed in the absolute truth of Newtonian physics and the speed of light…” I was moving across the room, between the tables, the physicists were a blur to me, I heard the sound of cutlery and glimpsed the square frames of glasses.  People scooped salad with forks and used large words to describe mathematics.  There was name0-dropping and sniggering, papers were being verbally reviewed.

She was moving north, toward the glass doors that onto the deck.  She was holding a mug of coffee and a pyramid of food that was either hidden under, or composed entirely of, a finely chopped kale salad.  She slowed and sat on a bench. There were massive ferns and a spry huckleberry bush in the background.   Only when I was almost in front of her did I notice that I had been spilling my salad as I walked and made a conscious effort to block her line of site of the trail until it had been kicked around a little.  “Hi, my names Derick Brandheart”  She looked up and smiled, her eyes were so soft, their edges and lines made me tilt my head as I looked back at her.  “Sandra Kirken; nice to meet you”  I had a memory now that could not have existed because I didn’t know I was trailing my lunch as I walked toward her and the memory was of the way lettuce and chickpeas fell and hit the ground, garbanzos rolling under the table.  “Did you know that the coldest point in the entire universe may be in the suburb of Burnaby outside Vancouver BC?  They have a quantum computer lab there with a chamber kept at -273 Kalven[i].  This is the most likely anomaly to attract intelligent life to earth, a dip below the cosmic microwave background of the universe” I was scanned for a reaction.  She smiled.

Very shortly after we had sex she reached for her notebook and began scribbling on the yellow paper.  She showed me the equation, and for the first time I had some doubt about my position.  There was an uneasy way in which it was simple enough and yet unsolvable.  I recognized it as a variation on one of my own, but Sandra had broken it by changing the role of gravity to a more nuanced quantum gravity.  I knew this was her field.  Had she been thinking of this as we made love?  Her eyes lit up when she saw that I was a little baffled.  There was a tension in my stomach as I tried to figure out just what was going on.  If there was a variability in the way gravity acted at the edges of the system it left a lot of odd room for other matter to exist either in or outside of our own time.  It became highly relative in a non-trivial way.  I breathed out, this was also just quantum conjecture but still it left me simultaneously deeply disturbed and very enamored with Sandra Kirken.

It was a few months later when Voyager began to leave the solar system and the readings it sent back surprised us all[ii].  The solar wind died out but there was no change in the magnetic field and the galactic cosmic rays seemed to be coming more from one direction.  None of the models had predicted this.  Sandra had first tweeted the rumors that Voyager 1 was going to surprise everyone.  She had friends at NASA.  We ate Chinese food and discussed the implications. I was less lonely then than I had been in a long time.  We were all baffled and scrambling.  The old models didn’t make sense any more and this created a great surge or reworking, There was opportunity in chaos and I couldn’t help but point to the observational data and its vast discrepancy form the theories that preceded it.  “We have no idea what’s happening out there”  That probe it is the furthest thing we can talk to in the universe and its not even in interstellar space, or maybe it now kinda is but, the point it that its all wrong.  We are in love with the ideas, with the explanations that consiginiously wrap up the loose ends into tight quantum packets of digestible photons, we praise the minds that pull the most together, are romantics for the biggest possible picture but, at a certain point, we are just doing imaginary math and relishing in the lack of supporting evidence. Drawing lines between things that may or may not connect, may or may not exist.”  She paused and speared a piece of tofu with one chopstick and used it to balance more rice against the other, a technique I had been admiring and trying to duplicate.  “Lets talk about the big bang, the heat death, Planks constant for gods sake” I took a sip of tea and placed my hand on her thigh. There was a flurry of e-mails.

The multiverse(s) still loom out there, it is a distinct possibility or a myriad of them.  It is a future of multiplicity encoded with a past of a singularity, at least to me.  Sandra moved out here and we live together. She is still chasing gravity through space.  We visited Vancouver and got a tour of the quantum computer lab.  There are articles, I was called a romantic for my belief in the universe.  Conferences. Space. Time.  Our bodies.  These things all exist.