Venus on Mars

Jan, Visiting Mars

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on November 21, 2009

Direct link to Mars right here!

I found Mars in the Mojave Desert, just as I’d anticipated.  It’s an actual place on the map; to get there I had to drive on what posted warning signs called an “ammo route” to get there, a little unnerving ( “Mars attacks?”).  There were also “tank crossing,” “turtle crossing,” and “burro crossing” signs along the way.

Since the sixties this has been the place where giant radio telescopes send and receive transmissions to/from unmanned spacecraft traveling through all parts of the Solar System and beyond: Goldstone Deep Space Network, about an hour north of Barstow, a location chosen not only for its remoteness, but also for its mostly good air and the fact that it’s surrounded by mountains on all sides – so minimal signal interference from the rest of the world.

This place does seem incredibly remote – even from itself.  You have to drive and drive to get from one radio telescope to another.  At the Echo station, our first stop, we saw a wild burro wandering around underneath the giant dish, a common sight, I was told.  Then on to the Apollo station, and finally to Mars, the largest of them all at 210 feet in diameter.  It’s truly gigantic; standing underneath it and looking up, I felt very diminished indeed.

My super tour guide was Goldstone outreach director Karla Warner (she took the photo of me above), and she’d invited another employee, Marie Massey, to meet with me also, because Marie had been there since the seventies and was able to tell me a lot about the way things used to be.

When Mariner 9 made its trip to Mars in 1971, Fort Irwin was closed and security at Goldstone was less strict.  The area was not fenced in as now, although there was a guard at the entrance gate and there were roving patrols.  Reporters were not permitted to visit – they were sent to JPL instead.

Control rooms were staffed 24/7, with employees rotating shifts at task-specific work stations.  I kept soup in my locker, Marie told me, because there was always a chance of being stranded here.

Before automation made things easier, radio telescopes had to be adjusted manually by someone who climbed up to the telescope itself.  How’d they know the correct position?  By consulting the Planetary Data book, finding the exact location of Mars (or any other planet), then entering this information into a computer that would interpolate progress and position of nearby spacecraft.

The precious transmissions from afar (radio signals in binary code) were sent three ways to JPL in Pasadena;  courier, mail and teletype – a more efficient method, microwaving, became possible in 1978.

A lot of the old equipment is still there; although all the ancient computers have been updated, there’s still an occasional oscilloscope monitor.  Employees use telephones, not webcams, to communicate,  and many tasks are still written on forms attached to clipboards and mounted on a bulletin board.

It’s a throw-back kind of place, funky yet sophisticated, with a bit of a time-warp feeling.  The radio telescopes there are still tracking spacecraft launched back in the seventies: Voyager 1 has left the solar system by now but is still transmitting, and Goldstone will continue to receive its increasingly faint signals far into the future.

You can see my Goldstone photos here.


Venus, Seen Unclearly

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on November 14, 2009

Venus exists beneath this dense cloud cover

I had a Venus epiphany yesterday.

I’ve been so busy writing about the great Martian dust storm of 1971 – one that covered the entire surface of Mars, upsetting the Mariner 9 mission – that I’d paid less attention to our other planetary neighbor.  While the Martian storm was transient, lasting a few months before dissipating, Venus retains its dense cloud cover always.  Made mostly of carbon dioxide, the clouds create a mega-greenhouse effect on the planet’s surface, with temperatures 400 – 700 degrees F.  If there ever were water on the planet’s surface, it would have long since evaporated.  In short, Venus is quite an inhospitable place.

I’d named my character Venus after Lowell Observatory’s beloved cow, but the harsh conditions on the planet also fit her.  Like a lot of young people back in the seventies, she’s trying to “find herself,” but struggling and failing in her efforts.  She’s a loner, keeping even her mother at arms’ length, engaging in transient sexual encounters she finds unsatisfying; her road trip in the story that parallels Mariner 9’s trip to Mars seems to be her ultimate effort at self-discovery – now reinforced by her inheritance of her Great Aunt Lulu’s journal.

In 1971, earlier Mariner missions had already sent spaceships flying by Venus, their cameras transmitting photos not of the planet, but of the clouds covering it.  There was nothing there to see.  Maybe my character Venus is similarly structured – so much covering her true self that there’s nothing to be seen, or known.

When she first goes to work at JPL, she’s pressured by male co-workers to enter the “Miss Solar System” contest (an event that actually used to take place there), mostly because of her name.   “Put on some makeup, hike up your miniskirt, tame that hair and you’ll win for sure,” one of the men tells her.  He’s only looking at the surface, but it’s not totally his fault – that’s all she shows him, or anyone.

This makes Venus a difficult character to write, as her true self is hidden even from her and all her efforts at self-discovery will end in failure.  She will carry her “cloud cover” with her forever.

Women on the Edge

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on November 1, 2009
Female employees at JPL

Female employees at JPL

While researching the part of my story that takes place in the late sixties/early seventies at JPL , I’ve had the privilege of talking to two former directors of the Image Processing Lab there.  Bill Green came on board around 1971, just in time for Mariner 9, and stayed for 20 years.  His predecessor Tom Rindfleisch was director from from the early sixties until 1971.  Image Processing was responsible for turning the raw data received from Mars into more presentable visuals; their tasks included removing transmission noise, enhancing contrast, and correcting for geometric distortion.

One question I had for both Bill and Tom was what the ambience of the workplace was like, specifically with regards to female employees, in a profession (rocket science) that was overwhelmingly male.  I wanted to figure out what job my fictional character Venus might have had, and I remember from my own workplace experience during that time that women did not have a lot of opportunities to work in non-traditional jobs (I worked in a television station and was the first woman there to operate a television camera).

While Bill recalled women in professional positions and even provided evidence in the form of a feature article in the JPL newsletter Lab-Oratory, Tom did not recall any women in non-clerical positions.  I realized I’d set my story right on the cusp of workplace liberation.

I also had a telephone conversation with another employee, Thedra MacMillan, who told me about the beauty contests during her days there:  Miss Solar System, Miss Guided Missile, and Queen of Outer Space.  I decided to incorporate this into my story, with my character Venus being pressured to participate, but refusing unless she can do this on her own terms, which are outrageous.  Thedra also told me about the dress code for women, and about the “director of protocol” who enforced the code.  Those were the days, some of you may recall, of miniskirts and go-go boots.  I’m not sure whether the JPL dress code would have condoned or condemned these.

This mirrors the story of Wrexie “Lulu” Leonard, who looked through the telescope at Lowell Observatory before most women were allowed to do so.  Her access was fragile, however, and dependent on the good will of her boss Percival Lowell.

My character Venus, by the way, was not named for the planet or for the goddess of love, but for Lowell Observatory’s beloved cow.


Venus, who worked at Lowell Observatory

Bill Green has just published his memoirs.  I’ve suggested that Tom do the same.  While we were talking at a coffee shop in Burlingame, someone overhead us and got all excited about Tom’s time at JPL.  This is good stuff.