One Small Spin

One Small Spin

by J.G. Hemry

Illustration by Shirley Chan

Cape Canaveral—NASA today announced the successful launch of Rover I, the first robotic interplanetary probe designed to fulfill NASA’s mandate to explore the Cosmos using “smaller, faster, and cheaper” technology. Rover I will conduct an exploration of the surface of Mars, achieving the same goals as a manned mission at a fraction of the cost.

Rover I Landing Site, Mars—Rover I rattled away from the pad of its lander, six wheels spinning almost effortlessly in the weak gravity, leaving small rooster-tails of fine red dust in its wake. A video camera mounted high on the front swiveled back and forth to transmit a view of its path to observers eagerly awaiting the news on Earth. Encountering a small patch of boulders lying like carelessly abandoned playing pieces from some mighty game of Martian marbles, Rover I consulted its navigation programming, then turned ninety degrees and surged ahead once more toward a smooth patch of sand. Hitting the smooth patch, its wheels began spinning faster, hurling greater spumes of red powder into the thin atmosphere. Pivoting, Rover I succeeded only in digging itself deeper into the sandy depression, all six wheels now buried up to the hubs in Martian “quicksand.” Halting at last, it sent a plaintive query back to Earth. Working across millions of kilometers, human technicians sent commands to rock back and forth, their efforts resulting in Rover I burying itself up to its axles in the soft red trap.

NASA Conference, Houston—

“There must be some way to free Rover I from that patch of dust.”

“I’m afraid not, Doctor Singleton. We’ve tried everything, even using the sampling probes to dig in for leverage, but Rover I just got too deep into the fine sand to pull itself out unaided.”

“Unaided? What sort of aid does it need?”

“Actually, a mild push would do the job, or a tug on an extended sampling arm.”

“That doesn’t do us any good.”

“No, sir, but at least Rover I can examine the portion of the Martian surface within the radius of its sampling probes.”

“How large an area is that?”

“About four square meters.”

Talking Points, to accompany NASA Press Release

Q. “How would you characterize the results of the Rover I mission?”

A. “As noted in the press release, Rover I performed in accordance with its design parameters. The robot landing vehicle has successfully conducted an extremely in-depth examination of a limited area of the surface of Mars.”

Q. “Exactly how much of the surface has Rover I explored?”

A. “Since Rover I continues its activities, the exact area which has been exhaustively examined is naturally in flux.”

Q. “If Rover I was such a success, why does Rover II need to be sent?”

A. “Rover I has only been able to examine a limited area. Rover II, by building on the experience of Rover I, will be able to cover a much larger portion of Mars.”

Cape Canaveral—NASA announced that telemetry from the Rover II delivery vehicle indicates a successful soft landing on Mars. After conducting a series of self-checks, the robotic Rover II will continue the exploration of Mars begun by Rover I.

Mission Control, Houston

“Oh, Geez.”

“What?”

“Rover II’s High-Gain Antenna won’t deploy. It seems to be stuck.”

“So punch it. Try rocking it with retract and deploy commands in series.”

“I did. Whatever it’s snagged on won’t let go. We need a few more ounces of force.”

“Where are we going to get a few more ounces of force on Mars?”

NASA Conference, Houston

“Why can’t Rover II function without the High-Gain Antenna deployed? Our space probes have been able to work using lower gain antennas as back-ups.”

“Yes, Doctor Singleton, but a planetary probe is dealing with too many variables for low-gain antennas to work for control. Right now we can’t tell what the attitude of Rover II is, or get anything approaching a video feed.”

“So?”

“After Rover I got stuck, Administration insisted on positive control from Earth of all movement by Rover II. That means we have to use the camera to identify a clear path before we transmit a movement order.”

“Listen, ladies and gentlemen, there’s a lot of high-level interest in making the Rover program work, especially after all the money expended to date.”

“We know that, Doctor Singleton. We think we’ve worked out a way to jar the High-Gain Antenna free. It should be relatively low-risk, and it’s our only real option.”

Mission Control, Houston—Commander Stan Halstead leaned over the control console, eyeing the readout dubiously. “Let me get this straight. You guys are going to deliberately crash Rover II into a rock?”

The console operator rolled his eyes at a companion manning the next console. “Astronauts. I thought you guys were scientists. Look, we need a couple of ounces of extra force to pop the High-Gain Antenna open, so we’ve identified a nearby rock formation and exactly calculated the necessary speed to achieve an impact that will deliver those ounces of force without damaging Rover II. Piece of cake.”

Halstead shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it. Personally, I d have thought the extra variables would have made the problem too hard to work from here.”

“What extra variables?”

“You know, planetary gravity and terrain. If Rover II’s going uphill even a little, it’d be too slow to get enough impact, and if it’s going downhill at all, it might go too fast and break something. With the High-Gain Antenna out, I’m amazed you were able to determine enough about the surrounding terrain to compensate for that.”

“Uh, yeah.”

Mars—Rolling sedately toward a large boulder, Rover II hit a steep slope four meters short of the target. Accelerating wildly, the probe struck the rock violently. The High-Gain Antenna popped free, whipping forward and slamming against the video-camera mount, which shorted out in a flurry of sparks. With debris from the shattered antenna lying across the power bus, Rover II’s power cells overloaded and erupted into flame. Briefly, a small bonfire warmed the cold desolation of the Martian plain.

Cape Canaveral—The launch of a booster carrying Rover III, the latest in a series of robotic planetary explorers, was celebrated by NASA today. Rover III, following in the footsteps of the first two Rovers, will continue the awesome exploration of another world despite some controversy over the program here on Earth.

Senator Claghan, in a testy exchange with witnesses before her subcommittee, demanded to know how cost-effective the Rovers have been compared to a manned mission and inquired whether NASA was continuing to evaluate manned alternatives or was “fixated on the non-human option.” NASA insisted that all alternatives remained on the table despite an official stance in favor of robotic exploration missions, and trumpeted the success of the robotic policy to date.

Doctor Singleton, senior NASA administrator in charge of the Rover program, noted that the Rover explorers have provided unprecedented information on the Red Planet. Rover II, he noted, elicited a remarkable level of detail on the difficulties of navigating through the rugged Martian terrain despite the unexpectedly short life of its power cells. When quizzed by Senator Claghan regarding the wisdom of dropping explorers into “rugged” terrain, Doctor Singleton announced that a different landing site with more promising terrain had been selected for Rover III.

Rover III Landing Site, Mars—Rocks ranging in size from clenched human fists to ones that rivaled the height and width of supermarket shopping carts littered the smooth plain. Coming down gently, the probe delivery vehicle landed slightly askew, propped on one of the smaller stones. Latches retracted, allowing clamshell doors to fall open with slow dignity, a fall that was halted prematurely when one section struck against one of the larger rocks. Inside the probe, Rover III spun its wheels impotently, unsuccessfully trying to climb out of its tiny prison.

NASA Conference, Houston—

“Only one door is stuck. Why won’t the rest open?”

“Because they’re all slaved together, Doctor Singleton. The idea was that the combined weight of the doors would make sure they all fell open.”

“Why did we drop it into all those rocks?”

“They were too small to see from orbit. It looked like a smooth plain.”

“What can we do? We need answers, people!”

“Well, there’s no way to open the doors enough for it to get out, but Rover III can see segments of the planet through gaps left by the doors when they partially opened. We think some of the sampling probes might be able to reach through the gaps and get some surface samples.”

“So it’s not a failure, then? Rover III can carry out its functions?”

“It can’t go anywhere.”

“But where it is, it can do everything, right?”

“Kind of like Rover I?”

“No, not like Rover I. This is a totally different situation. The landing vehicle suffered from a minor problem, but there’s no failure on the part of Rover III. Am I wrong?”

“No, I guess not.”

Senate Hearing Room, Washington, DC

“If ...

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