I’m Goin’ to Goldstone!
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.