Curiosity is John Wesley Powell on Mars

Last night, my wife Rachel and I took our two daughters, Lia and Aria, to the Will Geer Theatricum in Los Angeles to see a hippie rendition of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. But though the Will Geer production was colorful and I mention my family here, this post isn’t about Shakespeare or my family. It’s about Mars.

At 10:20, as our car wound its way down through Topanga Canyon, the lights of the San Fernando Valley laid out before us below, I said to my eight-year old daughter–who, unlike her six-year old sister, was still awake–the following:

At 10:30 this evening, one of the most important events in all of human history will take place.

My wife thought I was joking, but my daughter believed me. Perhaps it was the tone of my voice. “What is it?” she asked.

“Well,” I told her, “you’ll find out in ten minutes. But to understand what it will mean, I’ll have to tell you a story.”

Here’s the story I told my daughter:

Ten years after Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species in 1859, an American by the name of John Wesley Powell took a boat down the Colorado River. It was the first time that a trained geologist had ever passed through the Grand Canyon, casting his eyes upon it. His reporting about it–he wrote a book about his experience–helped initiate an age of exploration as people the world over learned about places like the Grand Canyon and became ever more aware that Earth is not young, but vastly old, and that its history, both before the planet had life and after it began to have life, can be read out from its layers of rock.

“You mean from the fossils found in the rock?” Lia asked.


I got off of Topanga Canyon Blvd. and parked the car outside of Jerry’s Deli. Then I went to’s live video feed on my iPhone and handed it to Lia. I said:

A few months ago, scientists sent a probe to Mars and they’re trying to land it, as we speak, into the Grand Canyon of Mars, which they call “Gale Crater.” If it lands safely, it should send in the next few minutes a black-and-white image back from the Red Planet and a new age of exploration akin to the opening up of the American West will have begun. NASA scientists will spend many years reading the history of Mars out of Mars’ Grand Canyon exactly as scientists on Earth have spent the years, since John Wesley Powell first set his eyes on the Grand Canyon, reading the history of our planet out of exposed sedimentary rock. If the rover lands safely, you may want to become a scientist or engineer studying Mars yourself, devoting the rest of your life to helping humanity understand the full meaning of this very moment.”

Lia was electric with anticipation. We awaited news of the rover’s fate and joined the NASA scientists and engineers in their alternations of anxiety and excitement. It was a special ten minutes I’m reasonably sure my daughter will never forget. When she learned that the rover had landed safely and transmitted its first grainy photos, she was beside herself, cheering and beaming (as were my wife and I).

“Those scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory whooping and hollering are not far from where we are right now,” I said to Lia. “They’re in Pasadena. This is as big an event as when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. You should be proud right now to be both an American and a Californian.”

And here’s what I told her about Mars’ Grand Canyon itself:

Five billion years ago, a meteor hit Mars and made the hole we now call Gale Crater. Over time, the hole filled with sediment–with sand and rock–and as the sand got washed away by the later action of water and wind, it left a mountain in the middle of it–which NASA has dubbed Mount Sharp. That’s where the layers of history are exposed. That’s the mountain the rover will explore over the next two years. It’s where we’ll learn whether or not Mars was once a living planet like our own. If we find that it had life, how we think of ourselves in relation to the universe will have been changed forever.

I also told Lia that she should try to get some sleep in the drive back home, and that, in the morning, we could talk about this some more, as it would surely lead the news everywhere we turned. I was wrong about that. The news is largely dominated by other things today. I’m genuinely surprised. It’s as if Jesus is passing through our midst and few are noticing. But my eight-year old is noticing. And I’ll be telling my six-year old about it as well.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times with some background:

The mountain [Mount Sharp in Gale Crater], it turned out, was once not a mountain at all. It was part of a giant, layered plateau, which was then eroded — perhaps by wind, perhaps by water — into a cone.

On its slopes, the MRO found distinct layers of rock, like those John Wesley Powell found in the Grand Canyon.

And a scientist is quoted as saying, “We think Gale has many stories to tell. We’re going to ask it what happened.”

Below is a NASA depiction of Mount Sharp in its crater and the location of the rover. This is worth getting excited about. Think of the rover’s planned trek, depicted in blue, as the direction of movement of John Wesley Powell’s eyes over a page, reading the Book of Nature of a planet not his own. What an epic is written there just begging for readers!

Oblique view of Mount Sharp

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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