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Interstellar Storyteller

by Carla Bitter

October 29, 2008 -
“I’m going to tell you a story.” If, like me, that line never fails to excite you, you may think a lot about the nature of how we humans communicate. I have been thinking about this more than usual lately, as the best story I am ever going to tell enters its dénouement, and the last chapter of our Martian fairytale unfolds in icy drama.

I realize that Martian storytelling is an ancient practice and I am in excellent company with Greek and Roman philosophers, prehistoric astronomers, even our earliest ancestors who without the gift of human speech must have gazed up into glittering dark skies and wondered about that red dot, somehow different from the rest. Uggha! So the promise of hearing a great story ranks high on my Earthly Pleasures scale, and having evolved to the point of being able to tell a great story about Mars even more so.

In terms of human evolution, our spoken language is pretty new, on the order of a few tens of thousands of years old, and it only crossed our minds a couple of thousand years ago that we could write stuff down in a way that allows us to share information and, ultimately, knowledge. This was quickly followed by the writing, reading and teaching of the master works of science fact and science fiction emerging over the last several hundred years, which have created the Mars we understand today. Enter the Internet, Wikipedia and text messages; so instantly satisfying as tools of human communication, it’s easy to forget they don’t even register as a blip on a blip on our evolutionary timeline.

Yet in order to communicate effectively with the modern world about Mars, we rely on this legacy of human oratory using the Mission’s most gifted storytellers for press conferences and interviews, our most talented thinkers and authors to publish the papers full of science findings, to translate words and activities into language that our spacecraft understands, and our modern media marvels to animate, annotate and Twitter Martian images and data into our iPods, websites, Second Life’s and blog-o-spheres. Our team’s desire to tell our stories is so powerful that we even refer to our spacecraft’s “data story,” “energy story,” and now Phoenix’s “end game story” in our internal meetings and discussions.

Add to that communication order all the hungry minds to be fed: school kids, scientists, CNN, late night chat show hosts, the BBC, PBS, reporters, science magazines, teachers, the Rotary Club, your neighbors, Steve the Cat, NASA officials, science fiction conference organizers, UFO cult fanatics, and all the rest. Each shares the basic desire to hear this story told, and like a beautiful but demanding child, wants it told “NOW!”

As you can imagine, communicating real science in real time here on Earth about the daily happenings on Mars can have even the best minds reeling at the complexities of sharing new information quickly and authentically, sometimes before we really know what it all means. This is the time before mere information becomes knowledge. The time you’d like to stay quiet, to think and wonder about the data. The time it takes to assess, to examine, to argue, to understand, then finally to explain and share these new findings.

Curiously, this is exactly the time that no longer exists in the modern world of media sound bytes, publication deadlines, and 24-hour news networks. This was a comfort that our scientists found themselves without, as strategic and tactical processes filled every available time and space, financial worries plagued us, demands for information came at us through every conceivable portal, sol rolled into sol and the Martian summer faded away. There was no time to linger in the landscape, to dig the deepest trenches, to watch the snowfall or to profoundly discuss the intricacies and nuances of what was being learned and seen and known. This is where I envy our ancient Martian storytellers, for while we have the extravagance of the latest technology, they had the luxury of time.

Missions are truly tales of engineering prowess, of conquering space, of science discovery, and modern human exploration.  But wrapped within these tales are the subplots, the ancient human stories of determination, ingenuity, sacrifice, grief, change, loss, compromise, excitement, teamwork, disappointment, humility, even romance and love. It is an impossible task to tell the tale of this Mission to Mars in a single voice and I’m grateful that we don’t have to try. Whether you want to hear our data story, the energy story, the science story, or our human story, I hope what we have to tell you in the coming weeks will inspire you and excite you and be everything you hoped for, as great stories always are.