Culture, Technology — August 16, 2012 8:00 am

Space Golf

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I need to tell you a secret: I know very little about Curiosity, the Mars rover. I’ve seen pictures, I’ve overheard rumblings, I bought the issue of Time magazine about it in an airport and fell asleep for the duration of the flight. I haven’t done my homework.

Well that’s a weight off. Now you know in no uncertain terms that the rest of this column makes no pretensions to expertise (an event that’s a rarity in its own right).

This blithe, dunno-but-I’ll-figure-it-out-as-I-go attitude is one of the general benefits of being a tech-head. Lots of people, they don’t know much about something, they ask. Nerds like me poke around to see if we can figure it out, or Google it or something. It’s very helpful when trying to figure out, say, a particular feature of a software application.

Significantly less useful when you’re talking about a remote control robot on another planet. But guys, there’s the headline right there. We put an RC car on another planet.

One of my favorite tidbits from these gone-too-soon 2012 Summer Olympic Games was the discus retriever. Far from being a rare breed of dog, the discus retriever was an RC car–a Mini Cooper, actually–tasked with rolling the 80 meters or so that OIympians can throw a discus, having the discus loaded into it by the discus picker-upper, and chauffering the discus back to the waiting hands of the next Olympian.

That is very cool! Discuses (disci?) are heavy. I remember this from high school track and field. That’s a powerful RC Mini Cooper.

In my random overhearings with respect to Curiosity, I have gathered that it is roughly the size of a car. Not a mini-Mini, but like a real car. I don’t know if it’s the size of an actual Mini or the size of a Ford Expedition, so for estimation purposes, I’m going to say it’s the size of a Nissan Altima. As I mentioned at the outset, I have no idea if this is actually true.


(When I mentioned that fact to a friend in the tone of awe I hope that all-caps sentence conveys, my friend responded with one of the great philosophical reversals of our time: “What if we are on Mars and we actually just put a Nissan Altima on Earth?” What if, indeed.)

I’ve picked up the game of golf this summer. I’d played a time or two every couple of years for the past ten until about two months ago, and have since become addicted. I’m trying very hard to believe this is something other than me transforming from a regular, cool twentysomething into a token old guy. These efforts are not paying off.

But one of the many fascinations of golf is the target to surface ratio. In football, the endzone for either team makes up a full 10 percent of the rest of the playing surface. Even in basketball, a game with a pretty small target, a hoop is something like a one-thousandth of the surface area of the floor.

In golf, you’re aiming for a 3-inch-wide cup in the middle of a cow pasture. A sprawling meadow. An ocean of amber waves of grain. It presents a delightful, infuriating challenge: how to move this object with a great degree of control into this comparative pinpoint of a zone of success?

What I’m getting at, slowly, is the epic precision of putting a Nissan Altima on a planet not named Earth. Yes, Mars is big. You know what’s bigger? Freaking SPACE, bro, that’s what. Space. They call it space because even with all the objects in it, it is still very, very spacious. It’s the huge empty room the universe is in. They should call it huge space. By my highly scientific calculations, space is nearly 100 percent empty space.

And yet we aimed for that teeny red speck in the night, the one that doesn’t twinkle. We said, “I bet we could hit that speck with a Nissan Altima strapped to a missile. And instead of having it splatter on the surface, I bet we could land it softly, with a rocket-powered sky crane.”

And then we did.

If this is adding up, in your mind, to the ramblings of a wide-eyed simpleton, that’s fine. You can look elsewhere for the scientific details or the poetry of wonder.

Me, I’m sticking with the golf metaphor. You play golf, you get lots of advice. A recent piece, which has stuck with me and will for some time, on putting: What’s the only way to make absolutely certain you don’t sink the putt? Leave the ball short of the hole. If it never gets there, it never even has a chance to go in.

Curiosity is a story of audacity. I’m glad we sank the proverbial putt. What makes me proud, though, is that we dreamed big enough and pushed hard enough to give ourselves the chance in the first place.

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