Science and Technology News

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

From R2-D2 to Curiosity: Good Fiction to Great Science

NASA’s Curiosity rover is scouring the Martian surface at Gale Crater with drills, cameras and even a laser so it can find out more about the Red Planet. Curiosity carries no people, instead taking all of its readings by remote control and radioing them back to eager scientists on Earth.

It’s a biography familiar to “Star Wars” fans, thousands of who gathered in Orlando, Fla., for Celebration VI. For lovers of the galaxy far, far away, the idea of a robotic traveler working diligently far from home is reminiscent of R2-D2′s various journeys to Tatooine, Dagobah and Bespin or the Imperial Probe Droid’s search around the ice planet Hoth.

“From what I’ve seen, people being able to command to steer a robot on Mars from so far away is truly amazing,” said Ben Burtt, the sound designer on the “Star Wars” films who gave R2-D2 a voice mix of electronic sounds with human inflections.

He was also trained as a scientist, having majored in physics.

“I never could have imagined that being the case back 40 years ago when we started on the first Star Wars. At that time, even the R2 on the set could barely move down the hallway.”

While Curiosity represents the technological cutting edge for robots landing on other planets, it still lacks the personality and other high-level attributes of the fictional “Star Wars” machines. No worry, say fans of the film franchise. Reality will catch up soon enough.

“I think good science fiction motivates good science,” said Brian Pauley, an Ohio fan who dressed as young hero Luke Skywalker for the event. “When you see something, you say, ‘I’d like to do that’ and you set about doing it and then you accomplish it.”

If they had the chance to send R2-D2 on a scouting mission to a real planet in the solar system, Mars would still get most of the attention.

“Mars, that’s the best bet,” said Evan Greenwood, portraying Glen Marek, or Starkiller. “It’s probably the only one that will be terraformable at some point. Not nowadays, but it has the best chance. It’s the closest to Earth, it’s a mini-Earth, so it’s the best place for a base. So if an asteroid hits Earth, and if there’s people somewhere else, the human race can survive. Until we do that, we’re in peril.”

A more Hoth-like world also got a vote, though.

“Pluto would probably be the best to send it to because we don’t know anything about Pluto,” said an Imperial Officer-costumed Jasmine Seale. “It’s so far away, it’s so hard to figure anything out. So I’d love to send R2-D2 out there where we can’t reach that well.”

The most important thing, the fans said, was to keep exploring, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge outward.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface,” said Tim Martinez, dressed in the menacing black armor of Darth Vader. “I was a big astronaut buff when I was young and Mars has always intrigued me and I think the more that we explore, the more we’ll learn and the more there is to explore. Maybe we’ll travel there one day.”

Just as astronauts followed robots in real-life, no one expects the machines to be the only planetary voyagers.

So what “Star Wars” character would have the best chance of becoming an astronaut?

“Han Solo,” said Storm Trooper look-alike Christopher Garrison. “He made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. If anyone can do it, Han Solo can do it.”

Mariana King, a.k.a. Oola, agreed to a point.

“Han Solo has the courage, but he’s kind of reckless,” King said.

Luke Skywalker also was a popular choice.

“The best astronaut would have to be Luke Skywalker because he’s like the pioneer of Star Wars, he’s done everything,” said Marcus Richardson, who donned the flowing blue robes of Lando Calrissian for the “Star Wars” celebration.

At least one fan would pick a legion of astronaut candidates.

“I think the best astronauts would be the stormtroopers because they’re trained so much,” said Annette Cheney, an Australian fan who dressed as a Wookie. “They can do anything, so I think they could pick up NASA space training the fastest and easiest.”

Why not send the stormtroopers’ boss, Darth Vader, said Martinez.

“He’s already equipped to breathe in space, he needs nothing else, he’s ready to go,” Martinez said.

When science fiction shows or books offer a vision of what space travel and other worlds might look and feel like, people become intrigued to find out more about real planets, the “Star Wars” fans said.

“Every time NASA takes another step out, I feel like that was the reason I fell in love with ‘Star Wars,’ said fan Kara Gardner. “Because I wanted to know what was out there. Now we’re finding out what’s on Mars and it’s kind of like, well, that reminds me of this planet in the ‘Star Wars’ universe.”

“Every step we take gets us a little bit closer,” said David Atteberry, wearing a detailed Mandalorian armor costume similar to Boba Fett’s attire, “and that’s one of the things I found about the Curiosity rover, it’s like we’re finally getting out there, back into space and getting closer to that dream of being able to explore our galaxy.”

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center

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