Magazine article The New Yorker

Space Dirt

Magazine article The New Yorker

Space Dirt

Article excerpt

Stephen Gorevan, a co-founder of Honeybee Robotics, has thick snow-white hair that seems to float above his head like a cloud, and he wears glasses with pronounced black frames. He greeted a recent visitor to Honeybee's offices, on Thirty-fourth Street, by producing a magnifying glass from his pocket and pointing toward a framed photograph of Mars on the wall. "Want to look at something neat?" he said.

The photo showed what some scientists believe is an ancient salt-sea bed near the Martian equator, and was taken by the NASA rover Opportunity, in 2004. To the visitor, it looked like a generic spacescape: rocks and dust and not much in the way of color. Gorevan handed over the magnifying glass. "Do you see anything near my pinkie?" he asked. It was hard to say. "Something segmented?" Gorevan suggested. After some hesitation, the visitor wondered, "Is it supposed to be an animal?"

"We're forbidden to utter those words," Gorevan said, and then bounded down the hall to his office overlooking the Hudson River, sidestepping the large reddish hunks of basalt that were scattered about on the carpet: simulated interplanetary surfaces collected from the Mojave Desert, southwestern Spain, and the Canadian Arctic, for drilling practice. He retrieved a copy of the latest Aviation Week from his desk. The cover showed the Phoenix spacecraft, which had recently managed, after several failed attempts, to shake some dirt collected on the northern plains of Mars into an onboard oven, for chemical analysis. (Scientists at the University of Arizona, which is leading the Phoenix mission, celebrated by dancing to K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Shake Your Booty.") "When you have something land on Mars, we start wearing our T-shirts, and sleeping and thinking and almost eating Mars," Gorevan said. His shirt read "M.E.R. Development Team," referring to the Mars Exploration Rover project.

Honeybee is a rare breed--a NASA spacecraft contractor in Manhattan. "People in our community are used to Southern California and Texas," Gorevan said, and conceded that recruiting employees was "problematic." (First-generation Americans from City College are the company's prime resource.) But now that the Phoenix has struck a hard white material beneath the Martian dirt, it is Honeybee's own custom-made scoop that is responsible for digging and collecting. …

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