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Thinking the Unthinkable

While catching up with The Astrobot Diaries just now, it occurred to me to wonder: what happens if something goes wrong en-route?

Biff is now two weeks out, on his way, and it’s quite likely that he’ll be fine until Spirit closes on Mars and has to make its final insertion maneuvers. What happens then? What happens if Spirit goes the way of Mars Observer, blowing itself up at the last moment as it prepares to fire its engines? Or what if something else goes wrong (something as unlikely and farfetched as, ohh, a unit conversion error or suchlike), and Spirit burns up in the atmosphere or craters into the surface?

What happens to poor, dumb Biff? Hasn’t anyone thought through the consequences?

Well, I think we all know what would happen to Biff. The real question here is how does the Astrobot Diaries handle this little problem — especially given the audience at which the site is targeted? Do they paint their website black, offer up mournful tributes to Biff the Fallen Hero, and deny to the end of time that the scurrilous rumors about a final, panicked email from Biff consisting entirely of the exclamation “AAAAARRRRRRGGHHHHH!” are in any way based in fact?

And what of Sandy Moondust, the pioneering female astrobot, still awaiting her launch from KSC? Biff is already on his way, but she still has ahead of her perhaps the most dangerous part of her mission. What happens if the Delta rocket blows up on launch? Will there be teams of frogmen dredging the seabottom, searching for her sad, melted remains? Will the world be horrified and saddened by Pulitzer-winning photographs of her shattered, empty space helmet lying forlorn atop a tangled mass of seaweed on Cocoa Beach?

Will we all be asking ourselves, in the days and weeks afterwards, if something more couldn’t have been done to save her?

And even if both Biff and Sandy survive to successfully carry out their missions on the Martian surface…what then? Clearly there is no way to bring them home, and that is the saddest part of all: Biff and Sandy, our noble astrobot heroes are headed out on a one-way trip — a suicide mission.

To make matters worse, those bloodless bastards at Astrobot Corps must already know it. And yet they apparently haven’t bothered to tell the crew. If it were you strapped to a mini-DVD on one of the MERs, doomed to a lonely death, abandoned on an inhospitable planet far from the familiar comfort of your friends, your production lot, and the injection molding factory of your birth, wouldn’t you want to know your life was in danger? Who knows but that Biff and/or Sandy, if given enough time, might just come up with some way out of the jam they are (apparently unwittingly) getting into? Maybe there’s nothing they can do to save themselves, but shouldn’t they at least be told, so that they might prepare for the inevitable, make their peace, and face the end with calm dignity?

What we are witnessing here is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes. And it’s only going to get worse from here, as Biff and Sandy steadily approach their very public appointments with the Reaper (or the Ghoul, whichever one gets them first).

Some will ask why the astrobots can’t rescue themselves by making a daring traverse to the safety of one of the Viking landers, whose RTG power units should have enough heat left in them to keep Biff and Sandy above their glass transition temperatures until the Astrobot Corps can mount a retrieval mission to bring them home safely. Well, unfortunately, the Viking landers are located in Chryse and Utopia, well out of the travel range of the MERs, which will be landing in Gusev and Meridiani — it’s physically impossible for the rovers to travel to those safe havens. Others may ask why they can’t be saved by the upcoming Mars Sample Return Mission: just launch it a bit early, meet up with the astrobots, scoop them up into the return vehicle, and bring them back to Earth. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way — for one thing, NASA can’t prepare a sample return mission that quickly, but more importantly, a rendezvous and rescue like this has never been attempted or even practiced, so it is likely that not only would the astrobots and their rovers be lost, but the sample return vehicle sent to rescue them as well.

2 comments to Thinking the Unthinkable

  • kert

    Fortunately, teleportation for robots is a lot easier problem to tackle than for humans.

  • I think there’s no actual plastic involved in the astrobots that they sent/are sending out on the rovers. Only their image on some kind ultracoated CD disc.