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MSL Results: "Earthshaking … one for the history books" Or Not?

By Keith Cowing
November 21, 2012
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Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now, NPR
“The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting,” John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That’s where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down,” says Grotzinger. SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of. Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.”
Keith’s 20 Nov note: NASA SMD PAO has confirmed that Grotzinger will make an announcement at the AGU meeting next Wednesday. Given that he repeatedly uses phrases such as “Earthshaking” and “one for the history books” when talking to the media (clearly with zero NASA PAO guidance) one had better hope that his news will indeed be of that importance. Of course, while everyone seems to be thinking that SAM may have found something important in terms of organic compounds, it could well be that it has found absolutely no sign of organics. I suppose both extremes could be considered “Earthshaking” and “one for the history books”. Given NASA SMD’s recent botched PR efforts with regard to life in the universe i.e. “Arsenic-based life” and “Earthlike planets“, yet another false alarm or flurry of unsubstantiated arm waving and hype would really undermine SMD’s credibility.
Keith’s 21 Nov 10:07 am EST update: Now NASA PAO and others are finally being dragged into the viral discussion. Perhaps if Grotzinger coordinated his message and choice of words (in advance), things would calm down a little. Given that everyone at NASA is either on vacation or about to go away for a long Thanksgiving weekend, I suspect this flurry won’t really diminish. All too soon the UK tabloids will be proclaiming that Curiosity has (once again) “found life” on Mars.
Dcouverte historique pour Curiosity : le vrai, le faux, Ciel & Space
VIA Google Translate: “A “buzz” unjustified “None of that!” Insists the French Michel Cabane, Co scientific instrument Sat “We do not understand what is happening. We have absolutely no news to announce glowing!”
A Mars Announcement ‘for the History Books’? Not So Fast, Time
JPL spokesman Guy Webster made just this point today in an e-mail to TIME: “As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” he wrote. That’s not to say he rules out the possibility of truly big news. “It won’t be earthshaking,” he said in a later phone call, “but it will be interesting.”
Keith’s 21 Nov 2:46 pm EST update: According to Mars Curiosity’s Facebook page: “What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission “one for the history books.” This is just bizarre.
First Grotzinger, the mission’s Co-I gets quoted on a national news outlet saying some rather provocative things. Then NASA PAO refuses to make any statement either confirming or denying what Grotzinger said (indeed they have decline to dispute these comments when asked). Then someone at JPL takes to a Facebook page to try and cast doubt on Internet rumors. Between Grotzinger’s comments, and lack of PAO clarification, it is obvious that no one really cares if these rumors continue – or if they are inaccurate – and also, that no one is really in charge of public relations for this mission.
Keith’s 23 Nov note: Yes, when you listen to the audio, its the journalist who uses the word “Earthshaking”. And then Grotzinger agrees with the word (there is no evidence from the tape that he denied that this word was accurate in any way). When you ask NASA PAO if they dispute the characterization of Grotiznger’s comments as stating that the new data is “Earthshaking” NASA PAO says “No”.
If this announcement is not “Earthshaking” then why does NASA repeatedly pass on repeated inquires from the media when they offer NASA a chance to dispute the accuracy of the term or to distance themselves from its use in this specific context?

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.