A little while ago, I noticed Jasmine Warga’s book A Rover’s Story on display in our library. I love a book with an unconventional narrator, and this one – told from the perspective of a Mars rover – is one of the most unique I’ve ever read. Strongly influenced by real life rover Perseverance, Resilience and his drone buddy Fly explore big concepts like our place in space, and what it means to be human. It is a dazzling, emotional book, and I highly recommend it.
One of the things I liked best about this book was how much it piqued my curiosity. We follow Resilience (Res) from the very beginning, as he is being built by a team of scientists. We see how much work goes into these missions – both physical and scientific work, but also emotional work as the scientists devote years of their lives to getting these robots into space. There is so much on the line, and it’s so easy for it all to come crashing down. As I was reading the book, I spent a lot of time on the NASA website for Mars exploration: mars.nasa.gov. It’s a goldmine of information, videos, projects, and so much more. You can get lost in space from the comfort of your own home, and I highly recommend it. I loved looking through photos from previous missions – the innovation that had to happen to get these giant machines onto Mars!
One of the chapters that really stood out for me was the one in which Res and his little helicopter friend Fly transition from traveling to Mars to landing on Mars. Res experiences some trepidation, but it’s nothing compared to what the humans on earth are enduring. Curious about this, I did a deep dive into the Perseverance landing – what a ride!! One scientist described the difficulty of landing a rover on Mars as a 20…on a scale of 1-10!! There are a lot of things that make it extremely challenging: the thin atmosphere on Mars, the weight of the rover, and not knowing exactly what to expect on the surface definitely add to the pile, but the thing that really pushes it over the edge is the fact that scientists on earth don’t have any contact with the rover while it’s making its landing. This is because it takes approximately 11 minutes for communication from earth to reach the ship, and vice versa. It takes about 7 minutes for the landing process, from start to finish. This means that by the time information is sent, the rover has already landed! Scientists call it “7 minutes of terror.” I have since watched footage of the Perseverance landing many times over with teary eyes, cheering alongside the earthbound crew each time it safely lands.
I knew I wanted to make a STEAM Engines video about this process with Desi, and actually had a hard time narrowing down an activity to pair with the conversation because NASA has so many excellent suggestions. Ultimately, because I was so fascinated by the landing processes of all of the Mars rovers, and ALSO because it’s a universal delight, I decided to do a good old fashioned egg drop experiment. We called some friends, raided our craft and recycling bins, and got to work. As we planned and built our egg protectors, we spent time talking about how to protect precious cargo. We talked about the variables that space scientists had to consider when planning their missions. Temperature, size, weight, speed and surroundings were discussed.
When we finished, we took our eggs to a nearby park and dropped them from a 10 foot play ground structure. Most of them survived, and those that didn’t provided a great opportunity that old engineering chestnut: you test it, and then you (make improvements and) best it!
After all, mistakes help us learn, and learning keeps life interesting.