Seven minutes of terror

By the time you read this, it will all be over.

We will know if the InSight has survived its “seven minutes of terror” and successfully landed on Mars.

The probe set off from Earth some six months ago and was set to land on the red planet at around 19:45 this evening.

Given that I am writing this on Monday, you’ll already know the result by the time this piece goes out.

The odds of the InSight lander surviving are not great.

“As humanity, as explorers – we’re batting at less than 50%,” says Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA. “Going to Mars is really, really hard.”

The most daunting part for those involved comes as the lander makes its descent through Mars’ atmosphere.

This is called the seven minutes of terror. During it the lander must slow from 12,300 mph to just 5, before landing on Mars’ surface.

Navigating the seven minutes or terror is no easy feat.

“We can’t joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft.

“We’ve spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we’re going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region,” says Rob Grover, who works in NASA’s jet propulsion lab.

Another NASA scientist I heard being interviewed on the radio this morning summed the programme’s feelings up well, saying:

“When we get that first confirmation, my heart’s going to explode”

But what is the InSight lander there to do, exactly?

Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, had this to say:

“Once InSight is settled on the Red Planet and its instruments are deployed, it will start collecting valuable information about the structure of Mars’ deep interior – information that will help us understand the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including the one we call home.”

And that’s the thing that many people don’t realise when they see stories about the latest spacecapades.

So much of our technology has come as a direct result of the space programme. Here are just a few of many:

  • Laser eye surgery
  • Scratch resistant lenses
  • Artificial limbs
  • Memory foam
  • CMOS image sensors – as used by your camera phone
  • GPS
  • LEDs
  • House insulation
  • Wireless headphones
  • The computer mouse
  • Laptops.

However, when people see stories about more space exploration, there is always the inevitable backlash.

Failures of thinking

“_matthew_” and “Mike Hill” sum this viewpoint up well in their comments on a recent Guardian article that asked scientists to imagine the world in 2050.

Some, obviously talked about the possibility of having a colony on Mars. But this idea wasn’t to many Guardian commenters’ likings:

As you can see, these snide comments got plenty of up votes. But their thinking is terribly flawed.

_Matthew_ is creating a false dichotomy. He is saying that by venturing to other planets that means we can’t put any effort or money into cleaning up our own.

That is simply not true. There is not just one scientific programme in the world.

And he fails to see that the information and technology we gain from space exploration can then be used on our own planet, as Glaze stated.

Mike Hill then takes _Matthew_’s comment step further and implies that the people doing this work are merely “clever idiots”. They fail to see reality as he does.

Mike Hill has a very egocentric mind-set. Just because he can’t see how this kind of work benefits the things he cares about directly, he believes that it is pointless.

What he fails to realise is that if humanity wants to go on existing, at some point it will have to leave Earth.

At some point, the sun will explode and wipe all life off this planet. If we haven’t begun colonising the universe by then everyone and everything on this planet will be vaporised.

We can “fix” this planet all we like, but at some point the inevitable will happen.

Just like _Matthew_, what he doesn’t realise is that by going to Mars and investigating, scientists will bring back valuable information that will help us to “fix” this planet.

As I said, it’s not an either or.

For some reason the human mind loves to divide things into false dichotomies.

I guess it makes it easier on our brains. We get to divide thigs neatly into what we like and dislike. What we care about and what we don’t. What is right and what is wrong.

It means we can remove doubt and be sure of ourselves. It means we get to feel in control.

Resolving not to do that is much, much harder on our brains.

I guess that’s why F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So, although this mission might seem like a far-off, expensive farce to some people, I hope there are many more like it in the years to come.

And I hope we all continue to benefit from the new discoveries, inventions and understandings these missions inevitably bring.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Artificial Intelligence, Technology

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