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So Long, Phoenix

Ochen Kaylan

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Phoenix at twilight
(Corby Waste of JPL)
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NASA Phoenix Mars Lander Animation

We let go of a little part of our civilization this week. The Phoenix Mars Lander--the thing that found water on our neighboring red planet-- stopped sending messages back to Earth. In technical terms, it died. Producer Ochen Kaylan had a rough time with Phoenix's death this week, so he decided to write it a letter.


I know you don't have emotions. I know you're not sad or lonely. I know you're not wondering why we would let you grow cold, to die on your own. I know you're just servos and wire. But still, Phoenix, I am heartbroken.

This heartbreak isn't new. It started back in 1999. The first Mars Polar Lander was nearing its destination. I was fascinated with the sheer absurdity and hubris of the task--sending something the size of a coffee table hundreds of millions of miles, screaming through space, to a piece of land just a few miles wide.

I took the day off work and stayed home, glued to the NASA channel. I watched the countdown from hours to minutes to seconds. Three, two, one...then silence. We'd expected to lose contact with the lander as it entered the Martian atmosphere. We held our breaths, waiting a few excruciating minutes for the lander to send us a message of success--just a ping to let us know everything was OK.

Minutes turned into hours. Nothing came. Maybe we'd hear something later that day. When we didn't, we thought maybe tomorrow. Then maybe next week. Sometime, somewhere, we'd hear something, right?

During the long wait, I wondered why this was affecting me so much. I couldn't really focus on work. I didn't talk with friends. I spent all my time thinking about that that little guy up there. Now, I'm not a marshmallow. I like math and science. When the fox catches the rabbit, I get the circle of life thing. But space exploration seems pure to me in a way that little else does. I believe in the Constitution but I'm skeptical of government. I believe in a higher power but I'm skeptical of religion. I believe in beauty but I'm skeptical of "art."

I think when I find something believable, something pure, something honest, I can't help but love it. And when something I love dies, even if it's just servos and wire, I feel it.

Phoenix, you weren't ever going to make us rich. You weren't going to produce any product to sell. You weren't going to give us some new power. All you were doing was gathering data to help answer very small parts of very big questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? How does our universe work?

You discovered ice on Mars, and all we gain from that is knowing how crazy it is that there's ice on Mars.

You died this week, and I'm sad for you, and I'm sad for us. I think of you eking out every bit of science you could manage, your energy dwindling to nothing. Literally working yourself to death on our behalf--not for our survival, but for our curiosity. You knew we wondered about the universe, and you knew you had something to add.

Know that you are not gone. Your legacy, your children, are the pieces of data that will forever change how we look at the universe, and how we look at ourselves.

  • Music Bridge:
    White Soweto
    Artist: Windsurf
    CD: Coastlines (Internasjonal)


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  • By Phil Russell Russell

    From Durham, NC, 11/19/2008

    Where would we be without our sense of wonder and awe of the world around us? Can an object whose design is in line with is purpose, form following function be totally inanimate?

    I submit to you an excerpt taken from “Year of hell II” an episode that ran on Star Trek's Voyager series:

    Janeway: Tuvok I can hear your objections already; I am not leaving.

    Tuvok: Given voyager’s damaged state the probability of your surviving an armed conflict is marginal

    Janeway: Oh I know the odds, but I have to stay; Voyager’s done too much for us.

    Tuvok: Curious; I have never understood the human compulsion to emotionally bond with inanimate objects. This vessel has done nothing. It is an assemblage of bulkheads, conduits, tritanium, nothing more.

    Janeway: Oh you’re wrong. It’s much more than that. This ship had been our home; it’s kept us together. It’s been a part of our family. As illogical as this might sound, I feel as close to Voyager as I do to any other member of my crew, its carried us Tuvok, even nurtured us, and right now it needs one of us.

    Tuvok: I respect your decision. Live long and prosper captain.

    “All of creation is but an extension of the body of man”
    Marshall McLuhan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan

    Godspeed, Phoenix

    By sondra sharee

    From CA, 11/16/2008

    Well, I don't know why this touched me so. I was driving home listening to the radio and, Luddite that I am, I later figured out how to find a copy of this program on my computer AND watched the delightful video. Thank you so much for this.

    I have a telescope. Sometimes I can actually see something in it and I want to go out THERE. To Explore. So perhaps your story met that curiosity I feel I have. After all, aren't we all just star dust? Thank you!

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