Bell — Postcards From Mars

Bell, Jim, Postcards From Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet, 2006, 196pp.

When I was a kid, growing up in a military family, the Apollo program was an impossibly glamourous and distant showcase of talent, excitement, and adventure. It was inspiration for much newspaper reading, discussions with my Dad, and avid TV watching whenever the pair of Canadian networks deigned to broadcast the grainy black-and-white images of liftoffs and moon landings. The cosmology inserts in National Geographic were also rare oases of rich visual evidence of what we knew about the world above our atmosphere. NASA was Oz. Information was sparse.

My twenty-five year detour into the social sciences and medicine, away from the space program, was brought to a gradual end by the advent of the broadband Internet. Nowadays, amateur space exploration enthusiasts have a waterfall of sources of information and visual inspiration, including live Internet feeds of NASA TV. Once again my Dad and I could share information, ideas, and now URLs. We can perch as a virtual peanut gallery, getting up in the wee hours of the night, if we’re so inclined, to watch the tense faces in Houston or the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, or peer at high-contrast postage-stamp-sized video from the International Space Station with Lego men in bulky suits wielding strange tools. Or even watch the space station zip across the sky at dawn or sunset. Our cup runneth over. We can be party to industry gossip. Follow every high and low. Every failure, catastrophe, funding fiasco, amazing discovery, and triumph of the “rocket scientists” can be shared in the video clips and press releases and space commentary sites available in a web browser.

For the last three years, one of the enduring small pleasures of life has been following the progress of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The story of their construction and testing and successful deployment has been well documented in PBS specials but still, a television screen and a computer monitor can only convey a certain amount. Bigger than a bread box. Smaller than a house. Yes, yes. As big as a stadium. About the size of a blueberry. Colour: tan … or tannish. Detail: mmm … rocky, sandy, desert-like maybe. A sand dune of some size or other. Lots of geeky people of all ages and persuasions clearly very excited about something.

Last April, during a visit to San Francisco, I took the opportunity to catch a limited release IMAX film called Roving Mars. Wow. Suddenly the panoramas of Mars, and the size, shape and detail of the rovers became vivid and crisp, with a resolution that overwhelmed the eye and brain. Much of reason for the excitement experienced by the science teams finally made it from screen to audience.

Now, three years into what was supposed to be 90 day missions for the two Mars rovers, we finally have a coffee table book that takes full advantage of the human eye to convey the very alien, yet powerfully compelling, landscape of Mars. Postcards from Mars is written by the lead scientist on the twin colour panorama cameras used by the rovers to capture high-resolution images on the Red Planet. He has selected the photographs, supervised their colour-processing, and written a companion text which describes not only what was seen on Mars by the rovers over the last three years, but how the scientists constructed the cameras and developed methods to convey accurate colour so we can see Mars as if we stood with them.

Measuring a foot square, the book features a number of dual fanfold pictures (roughly 48″ across) that give ordinary folk their first very high-resolution glimpse of the horizon, landscape, the rocks, and the soil. The pictures are haunting, awe-inspiring, and regularly fascinating. In many cases, “false colour” is used to highlight features of rocks, soil, and geography of special interest to geologists and mineralogists. It adds an eerie quality to the book at times. This is a world both familiar and deeply unsettling, where the timeframe for the landscape is measured in billions of years. The rovers move across older landscapes than virtually any found on Earth. And it challenges our imagination to hold that timeframe in mind.

The rovers were consciously designed as stand-ins for field geologists, and one of the minor charms of both the machines and their photos is the scale of their endeavours. They move across the landscape in deliberate transects, measuring and photographing as they go. They make detours for interesting rocks, meteorites, craters, and dunes. They get stuck in sand. They watch their steps carefully when entering large craters. They map their path for safety, and pick the locations for “sleep” with care. They adjust to the shift of the Martian seasons which directly affects the amount of power they can draw from a distant sun. They hibernate as necessary. Sometimes, they stay up at night and stare at the sky. Sometimes they look directly at the sun to catch an eclipse by Mars’ two small moons. They inspect their landing platforms, heat shields, and parachutes for post-landing engineering information. They scrape interesting rocks occasionally to look with a magnifying camera at what’s underneath the “crust.” They get “arthritis.” It becomes almost impossible to think of them as machines … the tendency is to anthropomorphize them.

The result of this human scale activity (the rovers are roughly five feet high, seven feet across, and five feet long, with six wheels) is a picture book that effectively stirs imagination for human-scale exploration. It engages the eye. The accompanying text inspires and informs. Best of all, the story isn’t over.

Both rovers have made it through the recent Martian winter and are poised for dramatic new discoveries. Opportunity is perched on the edge of massive Victoria Crater and teams are evaluating how to climb into it. Spirit is set for another season of investigation in strange hilly terrain. The rovers have been joined by a new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which is carrying the most powerful cameras ever sent to another planet. The rovers can leverage their discoveries with the photos and sensor readings made by the orbiter above. Both rovers have long since worn out their grinding tool, yet their cameras, their eyes, continue to send back stunning pictures. They could fail tomorrow. Or continue for another year. But each day offers new information to science. And solidifies, step by step, Mars as a “human” world — strange, dangerous, and apparently “dead” but something more and more familiar with each passing year. A child of the 21st century will look at these dramatic panoramas of the Martian landscape with the same emotions as if looking at the Grand Canyon of Earth. Awesome but comprehensible. It is now permanently part of “their” world. Unreachable for the moment but within sight.

Perhaps your Christmas shopping is complete. Perhaps your budget is drained for this year. But if you have a girl or boy in your extended family who’s keen on science and adventure, this book belongs in your house. This is where you’ll set the bounds of their dreams for the coming century. Value for money is excellent … Amazon discount price is currently: $31.50. Add this book to the last-minute or IOU stack and give someone you love a very unique experience in 2007.

You’ll have your first intense experience of Mars through “human” eyes. Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “Bell — Postcards From Mars”

  1. A supplement to James’s (as usual – interesting) review: Bell was on C-span at 1 a.m. & will be on again Monday, December 25 at 12:15 pm. His enthusiasm (like James’s) is contagious. ( for more.)

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