The news that the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) had probably succumbed to a fault in its solar array steering mechanism brought a sad although not unexpected loss of a machine that I'd come to think of as an old friend. The spacecraft, which had been built using many spare parts from my ill-fated project, the Mars Observer, went silent after mapping Mars since early 1999, nearly five times its nominal design life. Nevertheless, the news was especially poignant for me since it also echoed the passing earlier this year of G. Edward Danielson, a Principal Science Investigator on the MGS mission and an old friend who taught me so much about Mars, the Universe, and life in general.
If there's any consolation to be had, it's that both Ed and MGS lived full and interesting lives and managed to touch the lives of many others along the way. I met Ed in 1986, after he and Mike Malin had managed to win a seat aboard the Mars Observer for the Mars Observer Camera (MOC), a high-resolution imager that they hoped to use to get a closer look at many of Mars' unique geological features, and perhaps even look for evidence of water some time in the planet's past. As one of the spacecraft's payload integration team, I was lucky enough to be assigned to work with Ed and his wonderfully unruly team of scientists and post-docs to make sure the camera would fit on our spacecraft, survive the trip to Mars, and deliver the pictures the science team needed once it got there.
Even early into the project, my conversations with Ed were interesting as he shared stories of his previous work on observing distant galaxies on the Mt. Palomar telescope, mapping the planet Mercury, and helping design the Hubble Telescope's Wide Field Planetary Imaging Camera. One of the wonderful things about talking with Ed was that, besides making the technical and scientific details of his work comprehensible and interesting to a layperson like me, he was also able to communicate the wonder and excitement he felt about his work. Over the next six years, Ed's quiet enthusiasm, generosity, and unique way of looking at the world were among the biggest rewards for the long hours and grueling schedule it took to assemble Mars Observer and prepare it for launch.
One of my fondest memories of that time was the day Ed came into the control room with a set of photos that had just been beamed back from the Voyager probe as it passed by Neptune. Experience told me that Ed's Cheshire Cat grin indicated that there was more to the white globs floating on the blue orb in the photos than my untrained eye could decode, so I asked him, "What do these pictures tell you?" Those words were the ticket that got me on a guided tour of Neptune's atmosphere as Ed showed how a scientist's eyes enabled him to use the time lapse between photos, spectral data, and shadow angles cast by a cloud nicknamed Scooter to give me a very good weather report from a planet that was over four light-hours distant.
Besides the memories that his friends will always carry, Ed's work on MGS, and a dozen other projects leaves behind a legacy of discovery that will continue to enlarge our universe long after he's gone. Likewise, much of the data that MGS sent back during its mission is still in the process of being digested and will continue to yield surprises for many years. In fact one of its greatest gifts was discovered shortly after its disappearance, when scientists compared two photos the MOC took of the same site in December 2001 and April 2005. Comparing the two photos clearly revealed telltale signs that there had been substantial amounts of water flowing on the surface of Mars at some time in the last four or five years.
Ed's unique perspective even added an extra dimension to more mundane activities, such as the day we found ourselves locked out of a loading dock at 3 AM and unable to get the MOC into our clean room because someone had neglected to give us the entry code for the door's electronic lock. After awakening the chief of security and several managers did not turn up the proper code, Ed ambled over to the lock's keypad and quietly started fiddling. About a minute later we heard the familiar click and buzz that signaled the door was open and we proceeded to get the MOC to its destination.
When we were finally settled in, I could not resist asking Ed how he'd done it. He flashed his usual quiet grin and explained that a close look at the keypad revealed that, as he'd expected, only four of the 10 keys showed any significant signs of repeated contact with fingers, giving him the four digits that would open the door - although not their proper sequence. "But after that, it was pretty much a combinatorial exercise," he said. "I narrowed down the problem a little further by assuming that the lock was cheap and would not be able to accept the same digit twice, which cut down the possibilities from 10,000 combinations to a number that was much more manageable. After that, I just got lucky."
I'd argue, however, that I was the lucky one having had the chance to work with Ed, Mike Malin, Mike Ravine, Jack Trombka, and several other scientists who showed me that there is poetry written in the fabric of the universe.
Comments? Questions? Tales of wonder to share? Write me at: email@example.com