Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Futility On The Mud Planet (2005)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, APRIL 15 - This originally posted on, 1/17/05


News came from outer space on Friday that the Huygens probe (pronounced either “hoy-genz” or “har-kens” or “how-kenz” or the breezy “Hi, Guns!”) had successfully landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Seen as the climax of a mission that has produced some stunning visuals - the 331/3 RPM grooves of ice and grit, the sad golf ball of Mimas, something resembling a giant potato twirling through something called the “F ring” - the view from Titan is an anticlimax. The first grainy photo seemed to show an unused parcel of property in Arizona. On Saturday came the color pictures. What appeared to be a gray southwestern desert was revealed as an orange southwestern desert, with a surface texture "like creme brule”. The craft had apparently landed in something called "mud". Worst of all, Hi Gun's pictures lacked that one iconic vista from thousands of classic science fiction paperbacks; a lopsided Saturn hanging far beyond a craggy extraterrestrial skyline. In real estate terms (and what is planetary exploration but a series of vast, slow-motion real estate transactions?) this would be like purchasing a Central Park duplex and finding the windows bricked over.

Huygens was a passenger on the much larger, slower and politically unsavory Cassini mission, the last of the old-timey space probes. Saturn is too far, and the spaceship too fat, for conventional propulsion. NASA solved both technical problems with gorgeous recklessness; Cassini shipped out with 72 pounds of plutonium, then rambled through a series of “flybys”, propelling itself to the outer planets by slingshotting around the inner planets. Perhaps the good citizens of Venus (two drive-bys, April ’98 and June ‘99) staged their own anti-Cassini rallies. Hopefully their media outlets were a bit more vigilant than ours. When the death ship came hurtling back towards Earth at 43,000 miles per hour in 1999 for the third and potentially deadly flyby, none of the major news outlets addressed the danger. I remember watching CNN that night with a strange feeling of helplessness. Such news-related frustration has since become a staple of life in the 00’s, but then lots of changes have taken place since Cassini and Huygens slipped the surly bonds of Earth. The project’s $3.3 billion price tag, a liability in the pre-W universe, now carries the seeds of its own defense. If America can spend that much in 19 days of chaos and horror in Iraq, why not explore the outer planets?

Huygens seems a bit of an innocent in all this, a European project with no Plutonium Pu-238. Like an abducted child, its saga is a sad one. The craft escaped on Christmas Eve only to fall to a lonely death on a methane-stinking mud world far below. A specially commissioned "Portrait Of Humanity" was to have accompanied the small probe on this final mission. This attempt to distill all of humankind into a single, symbol-rich photograph had its creepy parts. What would aliens have made of the awkward strangers in this awkward photo, the breastfeeding mother, the sullen black adolescent, the man with a mullet? The deed of permanence, however, was inspiring; engraved onto a diamond, the image could easily have outlasted the human race. When the sun goes supernova in several billion years, Titan's frozen gloop will thaw. Another Earth may bloom long after ours has perished. It is sad to think that these Titanians may never know of the mullet. Bureaucratic infighting nixed the idea after the image was engraved.

Grand statements were left for the mother ship. In the spirit of Voyager’s Interstellar LPs, Cassini carries with it a DVD of 616,403 random signatures. The DVD has no scientific value and does not come with a DVD player. As with all compact discs, in a thousand years it will be unplayable. Common folks, celebrities and politicians all took part in this cosmic bit of littering. The encoded autograph of “Delta Force” star Chuck Norris, for example, is now locked in orbit around the sixth planet. Futility triumphs.

And yet there is that strange lump in the throat. Sitting at the intersection of Holt and Geary in Pomona, waiting for the light to turn, I found myself suddenly teary. Huygens’ small victory was still a victory, one sandwiched between Ariel Sharon’s latest offensive and the first guilty verdict in the Iraq prison abuse scandal. What can it mean but something Good, or at least Not Bad, that humans are not all internet perverts, abusive parents or mosque-bombing fuckups? That some of us can design something that will hit a moving target 900 million miles away and do so gracefully, like an angelic act of parallel parking? That some tiny kernel of ingenuity is there in the DNA for the taking? If only there was some way to decode it.