Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

In the Summer of 2008, Brooklyn writer Andrew Kessler lived a space dream. He spent 90 days embedded in mission control on a NASA mission to Mars. His offbeat and often humous book, Martian Summer, captures the real-life drama of the mission and its passionate crew as they attempt to dig up permafrost on the North Pole of Mars. This excerpt is the first chapter of a three-month epic that changed our understanding of Mars and sheds a new light on the importance of curiosity-based research and NASA missions.

For more information: Visit the author at his monobookist bookstore in New York City's West Village or online at

MartianSummer300.gifMartian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and my 90 days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Author's Note: This is a book about Mars and the humans that make rocket science possible. This is not the most accurate account of this NASA mission. For that you'll want to review the science papers or other Mars related literature. Instead, this is an account of winning the nerd lottery: The luckiest fanboy in fandom gets a shot to spend three months with unfettered access to mission control. It's just your average summer trying to capture the story of 130 of the world's best planetary scientists and engineers exploring the north pole of Mars. It's a warts-and-all look at the Phoenix Mars mission from a regular guy who loves space.

Part 1

The Phoenix of Tucson


Date: June 04, 2007

The story begins two months before the launch of the Phoenix Mars Lander. One year before the landing. It takes ten months to fly at 74,000 mph to arrive on Mars. It's far.

The subject of the story is a Martian photographer.

"Don't call me that," Peter Smith, the world's greatest Martian Photographer says dryly. "It really diminishes the science."

This is a story about the world's greatest Mars picture taker and his robot, Phoenix.

"And don't make me look like some wacko mad scientist," Peter says. He has a hard enough time with the mission's image as it is. Peter is particular about the mission's image because he knows how getting it right has the potential to inspire children and adults alike. More than half his team is here because they grew up watching Apollo and Viking missions.

"What's going to inspire the next generation?" He wants to know.

We're sitting in the backyard of Peter's Tucson home. We're getting off on the wrong foot and I can't stop imagining Peter working in his Martian photo studio posing little aliens on the red planet. Stupid, I know.

Peter is intimidating. He is tall–very tall–with a shock of white hair, bushy eyebrows, big mustache, a robust Buddha-like belly and an alpha-male cowboy swagger. He towers over me and says little. Only grimacing and asking if I'm sure I'm up for the task, correcting me when I say things like 'Martian photographer' or make other interplanetary gaffs. I blabber to fill the silence. It's not uncommon to feel this way when you first meet the brilliant, geeky–

"Please don't make us look like geeks, either" says the brilliant John Wayne of space.
"Go collect some firewood for dinner," he says. I do it. When I return, Peter breaks the wood with his hands, starts a small fire and tells me a story.


Just five hundred years ago, Mars was a dot, a speck of light. Then came the first telescopes, and Mars ceased to be a dot. It became, instead, a world which scientists claimed was much like our own. Imaginations ran wild, and before long, rather than see vast, wonderful possibilities, we feared a Martian attack. As a war of the worlds loomed, Mars became a source of fear and anxiety.

It wasn't until our first stumblings into the solar system in the 1960s, when Mariner 4 snapped photos of Mars' surface that we caught a glimpse of what it might actually be like. Rather than an advanced civilization poised for an attack, Mariner 4 showed us a lifeless, desolate place. A few years later, in the 1970s, Viking I confirmed those first impressions: Mars was nothing to fear. Just a dead planet; barely worth exploring. The missions stopped. The scientific dreamers lost sleep and became depressed.

Then, a discovery in the 1990s changed everything. ALH84001, a piece of Mars ejected by a cosmic collision, was thrust through the solar system and somehow landed on Earth. It was found in Antarctica in 1984 but no one took much interest. When scientists at NASA finally cut it open to take a closer look, they found something shocking: evidence of life. Tiny microbes, simple little guys with evidence of a few of the basic structures of life, like a cell wall. It was the basic innards of something you might find in the extreme environments of the Earth — sulfur vents at the bottom of the ocean, the dry valleys of Antarctica or the Andean desert. Clearly there was more to discover on Mars.

So, we headed back.


Peter Smith is a master at conjuring these little Mars vignettes. That's not his only virtue or why we're here. Peter built an excavator to operate on Mars. It took five years of construction and nearly a lifetime of dreams. In a few months, he will watch a Delta-II rocket blast off into space carrying his 800-pound lander with a long arm that can dig into the surface of Mars. Past Mars missions toted along soup-spoon style digging equipment but Phoenix brings a mini backhoe to do real interplanetary digging. His mission is called The Phoenix Mars Lander. Phoenix for short.

Peter builds cameras for space. Capturing the universe on film is a great gig. He built almost half of the cameras that operated on Mars, and got to where he is by working his way up from research assistant to Mission Captain — or Principal Investigator to NASA insiders. It's a classic photon-to-Charged-Coupled-Device story.

You might remember waking up one summer morning in 1997 to a well-cropped ocher-colored Martian landscape on the front page of your newspaper or computer screen. Remember? Peter took that image. His camera, fixed to a robot called Pathfinder, captured the alien landscape using a simple yet brilliant trick to get non-scientists to imagine themselves on Mars and bask in its glory.

His scientific images looked like tourist photos. And Peter, betting that scientists wouldn't be the only ones who wanted to look at them, made a secret handshake deal to thwart NASA protocol and post the images on the Internet as they came down from Mars. It was arguably the first ever viral marketing campaign — undoubtedly the first for space. The traffic he brought to NASA's site nearly crashed the whole Internet. The coolness factor re-awakened a waning interest in not just the Red Planet, but space exploration itself.

This is Peter's whole raison d'etre, as well as his gift of empathy — a rare trait among scientific minds: obsessed with discovery, but never forgetting to stop to smell the roses. Peter wants people to care about space and science, so he does everything possible to make it romantic and within arm's length. Get through that gruff exterior and I'm just positive, we'll find an old softy.


Now Peter has taken on something bigger. He didn't just build the cameras for this mission, he's the captain of this whole ship and he won't take no jive from no one — except NASA. They control his $(removed) million budget and can cut him off at any moment, if he goes rogue. Not that I'm implying he would ever hijack a Mars lander.

Peter Smith invited me to his rocket-ship shaped home — a design rendered when he was a swinging space bachelor — because he wanted to revive the great space narrative, begun a generation ago but want for a new chapter. From our scant conversations before I arrived in Tucson, I learned he was looking for an outsider to join the mission and articulate to the world a story starring one lovable but tough-as-nails hero, Peter Smith, on one crazy, heroic, funtastic mission to explore the innards of another world.

This is our first face-to-face Mars accord. Peter wants someone on his mission that's not a brilliant scientist. Check. He's got enough headaches with 130 of those. He's looking for someone who might see Mars with a fresh approach and could write about it from a new perspective. Check. And there's one thing Peter can see clearly — I've got naiveté in spades.

Still, this whole project is a risk. Letting an outsider into mission control makes Peter's current P.R. chief nervous.

"You're a liability." she says. Then again, she used to work for the folks that make shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, cluster bombs and the like. Transparency doesn't come naturally for her. I just have to gently remind her, this is the Martian arctic, not Afghanistan.


NASA was once a brash organization; their ranks filled with half-crazed suicidal rocket jockeys and space cowboys. On the eve of the first moon landing, President Nixon prepared a speech to deliver if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin couldn't get back from the moon. Why? Because they weren't sure they could get back. NASA never apologized for taking that risk and the American public cheered them on with every small step for mankind. NASA gave us heroes fighting the good fight, expanding the possibilities of modern civilization. Somehow, since then, they devolved into a bunch of terrified bureaucrats. Can Peter Smith and his fanboy side-kick restore the glory days with a single trip to Mars? Hell, yes. If I fail, Mars and Peter could be relegated to obscurity forever and have their planetary street cred stripped away. Remember what happened to Pluto?

Peter is not going to ask NASA if it's okay for me to be here either. That'll make life a little bit more complicated, but Mission control is his building. And he decides who gets in. Besides what's a minor security breach?

"Security breach? This is not a security breach." Peter says. "You were issued a security badge through the proper channels. We had to make sure you didn't leak stories to the press."


For the long year after our first meeting in Tucson, I trained. I woke up early and went to bed late. I had two full-time jobs: One paid the bills, while Mars, Peter Smith and the Phoenix mission fueled my dreams for a better tomorrow. There was no way I would let my own ignorance keep me out of mission control. I did a few push-ups, but training mostly consisted of early mornings getting caught up on all things space before I headed off to my cube.

I'd give anything for a chance to spend 90 days on our red neighbor. Even though it was a gamble, Peter was never entirely sure letting an outsider in was a good idea. Or even if it was, that I was the right guy to do it. I sublet my apartment and told friends and family I was going to Mars, without a hint of irony. I even threw a bon voyage party. All my loved ones showed up to wish me luck. Then I held my breath and hoped eventually Peter would let me in.


On the 10th day of the mission, after a dramatic and successful landing (Phoenix on Mars and me at the glorious Tucson Airport), the intergalactic discovery was about to begin. The engineers were satisfied that Phoenix was in good shape and the excavation could get underway. The mission held press conferences to update the few hard-core media outlets still in town. And then a ray of light shined down as Peter's assistant walked over and handed me my very own security badge. My name neatly printed in black Sharpie.

"Talk to Peter before you use this," she said.

"It's a five-day trial," Peter said. And that's where this story begins: Peter Smith offering me the chance of a lifetime, a chance that's never been offered before and one that is never likely to be offered again. I just won the space-nerd lottery and I swear I'm not going to let Peter or his team of world-class scientists and engineers down. See you in mission control.

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