Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Finding Ada: Fourth Planet On The Left

Today is Finding Ada day, a day to celebrate and recognise women in technology. And this year, my heroine in technology is Veronica McGregor.

Now you may not recognise this name, and I'd be very surprised if you did. Veronica is the head of the news office for JPL, and she is also the voice behind the Shorty Award Winner for Science, the Mars Phoenix Lander on Twitter.

Veronica is doubly my heroine, because she managed to bring a very important scientific mission into the light and she did it by giving a far distant exploration robot a first person voice. She told the story of humanity finding water on Mars.

I'll let that sink in for a moment. She was the voice of humanity as we touched the face of another planet. How freakin' cool is that.

I can't tell you how many of my friends tuned into the Mars Phoenix twitter feed, every day, waiting with bated breath to hear if the sun had come up yet on another planet. To see if the heaters had come on or if the robotic arm had thawed enough to scoop a bit of Martian soil into an oven for analysis. We clicked the links to see a glimpse of this distant world. We cheered aloud when the little robot found evidence of ice. The building block for life, on another planet. It was literally science fiction made fact.

I was enraptured by the story this little robot told me of her experiences.

And I literally cried when she went dark. As the Martian winter took over, and wind (we got pictures of wind on another planet) kicked up dust that covered the solar panels, every day MarsPhoenix would try valiantly to power up and do another little bit of exploring. Until the day came when she could no longer do so, and she sent her final tweet in binary code:
01010100 01110010 01101001 01110101 01101101 01110000 01101000 <3
Triumph. With a less than three heart at the end.

Veronica, I can't thank you enough for the gift of that little robot. You gave us science in a powerful and passionate form. You made our hearts soar with possibilities. You are a true heroine of technology.

MarsPhoenix epitaphs were chosen from over a thousand submissions, and one of the final three was this:
It is enough for me. But for you, I plead: go farther, still. ~Fernando Rojas
YES. Go farther, still. Read about Cassini and the Mars Rovers landers. Read about science that is expanding humanity's understanding of our solar system. Tell stories that sweep us off our feet and out into the vast reaches of space, like the true explorers of old.

Veronica, thank you for leading the way. We are eternally in your debt.

ETA: My friend Eilidh works at JPL and forwarded my post to Veronica McGregor. Her response is below:

Oh my gosh! Thank you so so much for sending this to me. I’m absolutely honored that your friend would think of me on this day. This blog post, on this day, means more to me than any Shorty Award :-)

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to find a hanky.