Being in character and doing satire can sometimes have its drawbacks, like when a guest drily makes an assertion that takes you by surprise. This seems to be what happened to comedian Stephen Colbert on his show Wednesday evening. He certainly wasn't prepared to hear a "bold prediction" that NASA's Curiosity rover, due to land on Mars on 10:31 p.m. August 5 (PDT, 1:31 a.m. August 6 EDT), would wander the red landscape for two years and "discover nothing."
Colbert's guest for the night was NASA associate administrator for science missions and former astronaut John Grunsfeld. They were discussing the mission and its NASA's expectations of the $1.8 billion spacecraft when Grunsfeld told Colbert he would like to make a "bold prediction."
With Colbert, an avid space agency advocate, looking on in expectation, Grunsfeld said, "And that prediction is that the Curiosity rover is going to discover nothing on Mars. It's going to roll around for two years doing its wonderful scientific mission, looking at the rocks, drilling into it, analyzing the rocks to determine if there was ever life on Mars or organic material. But it's not going to discover a thing."
There was slight look of disappointment on the comedian's face, but he quickly recovered, turned, looked over Grunsfeld's shoulder, and "dismissed" him. "Well, thank you for joining us," he said.
But Grunsfeld was only joking, catching Colbert on a technicality.
"But people on Earth, scientists on Earth," he quickly added, "are going to discover all kinds of incredible things."
Colbert realized he'd been had. He saw that the Curiosity rover, the vehicle that was the Mars Science Laboratory, was just a tool and that the scientists would be the actual discoverers as they pored over data and information sent back by the Martian rover. "You scared me for a second," Colbert said. "I thought it was just a big cash dump for the government."
And it could ultimately turn out to be just that, regardless. The $2.5 billion program -- with its $1.8 billion spacecraft, which houses the rover -- has to get to the planet's surface and, if that is accomplished without any problems, the various parts of the complex mobile mechanical laboratory have to remain operational. It wouldn't be the first rover or lander to reach Mars and not be able to complete its mission, but it would be the first one from the United States to do so in decades.
Curiosity, according to NASA, not only has had to travel the 352 million miles between the two planets since its launch in November (although the worlds will only be 152 million miles apart with the rover lands because of continued planetary movement), but it also has to survive what scientists are calling the "seven minutes of terror." These are the seven minutes it will take for the spacecraft to enter the Martian atmosphere, deploy a braking parachute, jettison the Curiosity's protective spacecraft cover, fire retro rockets for more braking, and descend to the Red Planet's surface.
And it will do it by remote, so the "terror" will be felt back on the home planet for twice the amount of time it takes for the spaceship to make planetfall. Scientists back on Earth are just a little less than 14 minutes from the craft by radio signal, which means that there will be almost a 14-minute lag before mission control handlers will know whether or not Curiosity has landed safely (or if it can even receive messages from NASA) and tests can begin to see if everything remains operational for mission continuance.
If not, for all intents and purposes, it will truly amount to a "big cash dump." And that would undoubtedly disappoint far more just NASA scientists and Stephen Colbert.
But, hopefully, it will begin its two-year mission unscathed and perhaps make it possible to determine if there could be -- or could have been -- life somewhere other than on Earth.
"The Colbert Report" airs Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central Network at 11:30 p.m. EST.
Watch the NASA animation of the Mars landing, "Seven Minutes of Terror":
(photo credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons)