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It’s always upsetting when one of your heroes – or, at least, one of the people you admire and respect – does or says something to let you down. It happens all the time, I know, it’s part of life, but it’s still upsetting. We put people – film and sports stars, politicians, friends and family – up on high pedastals, look up to them… and then they go and do something that makes us think “Oh no…. not you… I didn’t think you’d let me down…”

This has just happened to me, with a figure from the world of space exploration, and I have to get this off my chest, I’m sorry.

I’m not going to mention their name, you’ll be able to join the dots if you have an interest in space anyway, so there’s no point. But this is a person, a writer, a scientist and engineer, who I have looked up to for many years now. Why? Well, because of his passion for Mars and his single-minded determination to kick-start a manned Mars exploration effort when everyone else was laughing and shaking their heads and saying “It can’t be done, matey… too expensive… too dangerous… too soon…”

Some have called him a zealot, have said he is obsessed, but I didn’t care; in him I sensed, well, a “kindred spirit”, I saw someone who, like me, was FURIOUS that they weren’t born On Mars in a hundred years time so they could explore and enjoy the beautiful, noble, glorious planet they love so much and that calls to them so loudly. I’ve read all his books, heard his interviews, nodding along as he made one “that’s obvious!” good point after another, seen him on TV giving his almost-evangelical pro-Mars sermons about why people should go to Mars and I’ve thought “YES! he gets it! he’s the real deal!”

So, naturally, I was looking forward to his latest book, which – from the future – advises newcomers to Mars how to get along on the Red Planet. I ordered it from Amazon, waited impatiently for it to come, leapt to the letterbox when it was pushed through and dropped onto the mat, ripped off the packaging and just dived in.

It was a great read, everything I’d hoped for and expected, and I was just thinking “This book could change things… it might actually get people believing living on Mars is a real possibility” when suddenly I read a word – a single, short word – in a sentence on the top of a page and my heart literally sank.

He called NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers “feeble“.

I had to read it again several times to check I hadn’t had a brainstorm or something. Surely he hadn’t said that? But there it was again. “feeble”.

What?!? NO!!


That was wrong, just wrong, in so many ways and on so many levels, and sitting there I literally heard the sounds of a hero falling from their pedastal, of a statue toppling from its plinth and shattering into chunks of debris on the ground below…


Why am I taking this so personally? I’ll tell you why.

Feeble? Two immaculately designed and constructed machines that are engineering works of art, as proved by the fact that they are still roving Mars 5 years after landing, four and three quarter years longer than expected?

Feeble? Two robot explorers that have literally revolutionised our understanding of Mars by confirming, unequivocally, that yes, the theories were correct, Mars was wetter and warmer in the past, and might even have supported life?

Feeble? Two solar powered geologists that have studied the insides and outsides of hundreds of martian rocks, telling us about Mars’ incredible past and giving us insights into our own world’s history?

Feeble? Two equipment-laden rovers that have taken and sent back hundreds of thousands of incredible images, that have been viewed by countless MILLIONS of people all around the world and in doing so have transformed our collective view of Mars from a desolate, rocky wasteland to a land of breathtaking beauty and grandeur?

Feeble? Two bold explorers that have driven mile after mile on Mars like metal Lewis and Clarks? If driving to, climbing and then descending a bloody great hill is “feeble” then I give up. If driving to, around and then into a huge gaping wound of a crater called “Victoria” is “feeble” than there’s no point in sending anything else into space ever again, because we’ll never do anything worthwhile. If photographing marmalade-thick sunsets, Earth shining in the lavendar-hued twilight sky and dust devils whirling and twirling like dervished across a wide open Big Country martian plain is “feeble” then we should probably just tear down every single launch pad in every country and forget about space, because NOTHING we will ever see Out There will be worth photographing.

Feeble? That pair of silicon and metal Shackletons that have survived half a decade’s worth of everything Mars can throw at them? Sun-smothering dust storms, insane temperature fluctuations, dust dune traps and more?

Maybe it was meant as a joke, an “in character” quip by the book’s fantasy author from the future, and I’m making a fuss out of nothing and a fool of myself by writing about it here in such a hurt way… if that’s the case then I will happily admit I’m wrong… but the book’s author is and always has been one of NASA’s greatest and most vocal critics – often, to be perfectly fair, with good reason – and the book bashes NASA all the way through, virtually slamming it against the wall and calling it “punk”, so I can’t help thinking this was him talking and not his author character.

Which is a great shame, because the MER mission is not just one of NASA’s greatest achievements, but one of the world’s, too, because , thanks to the online galleries of raw and processed images, we’re all sharing in the adventures of Spirit and Oppy as they trundle around Barsoom, boldly – if slowly – going where no plucky little rover has gone before. To call them “feeble” is to disrespect the incredible engineers who designed and built them; it disrespects the amazing men and women who drive them on Mars from their rooms at JPL; it disrespects the people who work so hard to put out those images of rocky landscapes and cloud-streaked skies so quickly for the world to enjoy; it disrespects the people who are working on the NEXT Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, because it tells them that they’re not really following much.

Worst of all, it disrespects the science that the rovers have done on Mars, which is unforgivable.

It might sound silly, but I’m not sure I can even bring myself to finish the book now. It’s tainted in a way, because I now have this feeling that its author doesn’t get something very, very important… which would mean he’s not the smart, insightful, visionary guy I thought he was. It’s sat over there on the shelf, waiting for me to cool down.

It’ll have to be patient.

 Spirit and Opportunity “feeble“?

Come here and say that.

3 Responses

  1. I know how you feel Stu – ‘feeble’ indeed – the very idea! Best not let Spirit and Oppy hear that, there’ll be ructions. Spirit always has been a drama queen but tell her that and watch the tantrum! Oh boy – I can see the headlines – “WILDCAT STRIKE ON MARS AS ROVERS RAGE OVER INSULT”. Now wouldn’t that be a picture for HIRise?!! 😀

  2. Just wanted to say this was good reading:) thank you.

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