Utah or Bust? Busted.

Today, a couple of ‘chutes on the Genesis landing capsule failed to deploy, which resulted in a new hole in the Utah desert floor. You can read all about it here, at least until someone realizes that the HTML file name is a little optimistic. (Currently, it says “genesis_captured_040908.html”. I’m not sure “captured” is a good euphemism for “slammed into Utah.”)

This makes two NASA return missions in a row that have failed: Columbia in February 2003 and now Genesis. It’s possible they may still recover some usable material from Genesis, but the fact remains that a simple parachute deployment mechanism seems to have failed. My guess is that this is another part that NASA had to order on the cheap because of budget constraints. (We had to send another soldier to Iraq, you know.)

The “better, faster, cheaper” mantra that NASA has been forced to recite for the last couple of decades is clearly affecting the quality of our space missions. Yes, we were able to get all three Mars landers successfully to their destinations, and that is no small feat. But we also lost a space shuttle, its payload, and the lives of the people aboard in that same time period. Genesis was a relatively inexpensive mission; it only cost $236 million, cheap compared to the $131 billion (and counting) that the War in Iraq has cost us so far.

There are advantages to the BFC mantra, though. More and more often, “cheaper” means “unmanned.” Though I’m all for manned space exploration, I think it’s smart to pave the way with unmanned missions. The research and technology required for the unmanned missions advances robotics and computer science research, and being a technogeek, I think that’s good. But the best part about unmanned missions is that they don’t cost us of human lives.

Space, like any new frontier, carries inherent risk to human life, and the people who sign up for the missions know that going in, just as our American ancestors did when they packed up the conestogas and headed west along the Santa Fe Trail. However, we do have an advantage that our ancestors did not: robotics. Why throw away lives senselessly when we can build robotic missions first?

(Of course, this leads to Asimovian ideas of the rights of machines vs. humans, and touches on a story I wrote in the late ’80s, in which an intelligent computer named Sara (after Alan Turing’s mother) feels discriminated against. But for the purposes of this blog entry, we don’t need to go there.)

Suffice it to say that the loss of research and equipment in the failure of the Genesis mission is sad, but not tragic. Had there been lives lost, it would have been tragic. As it is, we still stand to learn some things about the mission, the particles collected, parachute deployment, and our own ingenuity, and at a monetary cost about a tenth of a percent of the monetary cost of the War in Iraq. That’s quite a bit to learn, I think. It’s too bad that ratio won’t hold for the War, or for the 1,000+ coalition servicemen and uncounted Iraqis who have died as a result of it.

Revisionist William Gibson

When I made yesterday’s entry, I intended to talk a bit about William Gibson‘s appearance at the Boulder Book Store last week. The reading took place in the large upstairs room of the store, which Gibson referred to as a “ballroom,” and the crowd had standing room only. I was fortunate enough to get there early since I work in Boulder, and I was rewarded with not only a good seat, but a low number for the book signing line.

Gibson read a chapter from his latest book, Pattern Recognition. Well, initially, I thought he was going to cough a chapter of it; something got hold of his throat and the water he drank to soothe it seemed to make the problem worse. Despite this, Gibson croaked on, and eventually he seemed to find his voice again. It was a bit surreal for a moment, more than a hundred of us sitting there silently listening to his amplified coughs reverberating through the store. I expected people to involuntarily clear their throats, but if anyone did, I didn’t hear it. There wasn’t much we could do, but it was an awkward moment in which I wanted to do something to help him, and didn’t.

The chapter was short, a bit shorter than the Q & A session afterward. I did manage to pose a question to him. The exchange went something like this (paraphrased, since I didn’t take notes):

SJ: You seem to have a talent for putting words together in unusual ways.  Are there any exercises you do to cultivate that talent?

WG:  Revision.  It’s all revision.  I write the drafts, then rework it until it’s right.  

That makes sense. Although I’m a big believer in revision, for some reason I continue to have the notion that Great Writers spew complete paragraphs forth, Zeus-like, from their heads. This personal myth is probably fueled by reports of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury writing without revision, and surely, the more one writes, the easier it becomes to pre-form great sentences. But that’s no reason to expect that all successful writers write without revision; I’m glad Gibson reminded me that it’s not the case in his life. That makes me feel a little better about the level of his writing, too. It’s a bit more attainable now.

I haven’t read all of Pattern Recognition yet, but what I did read grabbed me. It’s Gibson’s first novel set in the present day, and it’s interesting how it still feels very much like a Gibson novel, despite the fact that no one has an input jack in his head and there are no major characters that are AIs. The evil international mega corporation backdrop is still there, but this time it takes the form of corporate branding á la Tommy Hilfiger. Heavy fragment use in writing, much like this sentence.

One notable difference is that September 11, 2001 plays a direct role in the development of the main character, Cayce Pollard. At his appearance, Gibson spoke at length about how he had completed 100 manuscript pages of the book before the attacks, and how the real world events utterly destroyed those pages of fiction. To be believable, Cayce Pollard had to be completely re-imagined as a result of the attacks, and the first 100 pages had to be re-written. He did so, and I think the revision contributed to the dark feel of the book. Reading this, I get the feeling it’s not such a big jump from Pattern Recognition to the shatterglass worlds of Neuromancer or Virtual Light.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.