Venus on Mars

I’m Goin’ to Goldstone!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on October 23, 2009
DSS-14 in the Mojave Desert

Goldstone DSS-14 in the Mojave Desert

Mars to Mojave – that’s the route Mariner 9’s signals took from the spacecraft to Earth, arriving here in the desert before being bounced over to JPL for further processing and study.

I decided I needed to see this place because, temporally speaking, it’s the finale of my book, which takes place during the summer and fall of 1971, while the spacecraft was on its way to the red planet.  After such a long journey, the scientists were justifiably disappointed when the radio signals, once converted into visual data, showed nothing at all on the surface of Mars, save for four fuzzy bumps – which later turned out to the the highest peaks on the planet.  It turns out Mariner had arrived in the midst of a planet-wide dust storm that raged for months, obscuring pretty much everything Mariner’s cameras had traveled there to see and transmit.

Unforseen events seem to have a place in my book.  Generations before the Mariner missions, Lowell saw the canals on Mars, in part, because that’s what he was prepared to see.  When Mariner 9 arrived and entered Mars orbit on Nov. 13, 1971, its cameras did not find the craters, crevices and possible hints of life on Mars its had been so carefully prepared to see, because there was something else happening, something unforseen.  Those in charge of the mission turned off the onboard cameras to conserve battery power until the storm subsided, only later deciding that the unanticipated dust storm had been a good thing, an unusual occurance worth examination.

Rocket scientists, astronomers and spend much time creating a perfect mission plan in order to clearly see a heavenly object, while the same object’s imperfections, especially those not in the mission plan, may go unnoticed, or may doom the plan altogether.  In my book, learning to see and to value the unexpected comes front and center.

I’ve worked for at least a month to get clearance (it’s at a military base, Fort Irwin, and has been a lot harder to get access to than JPL in Pasadena last summer).  I’ll be at the Goldstone Deep Space Network in the Mojave November 20, just a few days past the anniversary of Mariner 9’s arrival at Mars, and of course, will report what I see – especially the unforseen.

Constructive Thinking

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on October 15, 2009
Actual journal written by Wrexie Louise Leonard - from Lowell Observatory Archives

Actual journal written by Wrexie Louise Leonard - from Lowell Observatory Archives

I think people long ago were more likely to keep journals not only as a record of day-to-day activities, but also as a way of preserving their own histories.  With no way to upload a Tweet about what you had for breakfast, the keeper of a journal was faced with a more serious task – to create, on paper, one’s life, privately and with dignity, as the journal may be the only record of this person’s existence remaining after his/her death.  The journal was not so much a public dissemination, but a private reflection.  Truth was not required; the journal was a construction based on reality, but not reality itself.  The journalist was free to write selectively, emphasizing some events over others, not including miserable times one did not wish to remember, and exaggerating one’s superior qualities as deemed necessary.  Then, as now, the mantra “it’s all about me” was operational.

Recently I had the opportunity to examine a journal written by Percival Lowell during the summer of 1904; it’s in Harvard’s Houghton Library and must rest on a thick pad of foam rubber while being read.  I’d heard about it from Lowell biographer David Strauss.

More so than most journals, this one by Lowell is indeed a construction, not only written but also illustrated by photos taken as he made his way through Europe, most often in the company of an attractive young woman; he was one of the most eligible bachelors of his day – rich, handsome, intelligent and charming.

What struck me as I read and looked was that the logistics of taking a photograph in 1904, then getting it processed and printed before it could be pasted into the journal pretty much negates the idea that this is an actual journal, as in written over time on the same day the events being described actually happened.  He’d have needed some time, days and maybe even weeks, to get the photographs done, so how’d he know which ones would turn out well, which ones he’d want to paste into his journal, and how much room to leave for them?

And yet there they are:  the woman de jour, sometimes posing provocatively; Lowell himself, once posing on a tall pedestal – making a monument of himself!  In the most intimate photos, he’s even cut out a neat square where his companion’s head would be to protect her identity (which surely means he never intended to keep this journal private).

This is not a journal written on the fly; it’s more of a careful construction after the fact.  I formed a new notion of how the journal came to be and ran it by Strauss, who finds it plausible.  I think Lowell kept a more informal journal during the summer and later on, recopied the journal entries and added the photos.

The journal has a narrative shape, beginning with his meeting of a woman on the gangplank of the ship as he was sailing for Europe – he wasted no time – and ending as he boards the ship returning to the US – and tells us of two letters he’d just received, one of them from his assistant Wrexie Leonard – the woman to whom he was returning.  The story contained within the ocean liner bookends is one of passion, retreat from passion, loss of passion, and eventual recognition of the journal keeper’s true passion – his astronomical work.

I started writing my novel a full year before taking a look at Percy’s journal, but realize I am doing the exact same thing:  I’m constructing a journal and pasting its entries throughout my story.  Although based on actual events in Wrexie Leonard’s life, I’ve fictionalized her journal (her actual journal, the one shown above, was written before she met Percival Lowell and was much more frivolous and superficial than the one I’m writing for her).  Truth is not required, I keep telling myself, but so much more is necessary – using someone else’s voice requires exact knowledge of who this person was, skill in interpreting events in her life as she herself might have, and constructing from them a grander narrative revealing more than one woman, and a Victorian one at that, might choose to tell us about herself.

Percy’s journal construction, I think, frees me in my thinking about how to construct Wrexie’s.

Wrexie and Vera

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on October 8, 2009
Wrexie Leonard at Lowell Observatory, circa 1896

Wrexie Leonard at Lowell Observatory, circa 1896

I remember early on during my research finding this picture in the online Lowell Observatory archives.

This photo, coupled with this quote I found on a “women in astronomy” web site, convinced me to find out more about this woman looking through a big telescope back in 1896.

“Women were not allowed to use the world’s largest telescopes until the 1960’s.”


I decided to track down the quote, quite a challenge, since its author Sally Stephens had abandoned astronomy in favor of dog advocacy.  Finally I found her at “SF DOG” and we had a brief phone conversation.  She said there was no specific source for this information, that it was just generally known to be true.

Meanwhile I wanted to use the quote in a factual article I was writing about Wrexie for the Lowell Observatory newsletter, so Lowell archivist Antionette Beiser went to work, coming up with an amazing email from Vera Rubin (of dark matter fame) in which Rubin described how she became the first woman to legally observe at Palomar in 1965 – on the application she had to fill out, there was a statement “Due to limited facilities, we cannot accept applications from women,” but someone had pencilled in the word “usually.”

Wrexie’s contributions to astronomy are extremely modest when compared to all Vera Rubin has achieved, but they are both women ahead of their respective times.

Gigantic dark ring around Saturn!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on October 7, 2009

Announced today.

Saturn Lamp

Saturn Lamp at Lowell Observatory

Makes me think about how new discoveries in our Solar System can come at any time, upsetting what we thought we knew up to this point.  Percival Lowell considered himself the first “planetologist,” a person who studied all the planets, trying to find comparative evolutionary paths among them.  His Martian canals so excited the public that many believed in their existence, and the existence of beings who constructed them, until close-up photography of the planet’s surface in the seventies revealed no such thing.  The idea of life on Mars survives, however.  Now we know there is water on the planet, maybe enough to have sustained life in the past, and maybe enough to do it again in the future, as soon as we figure out how to get there.

In his later years, perhaps trying to salvage a reputation that had been much maligned by other astronomers, Lowell revised his notion about life on Mars, saying that he never meant there were living Martians in any form resembling humans, but that conditions on Mars were favorable for supporting life in some form, at some time.  Looks like he got that one right.

If his primary planetary obsession was Mars, then Saturn ran a close second.