My Speech to the Mars Rover Team at JPL


Great to be here – behind all this facial hair is a former CNN space correspondent… but as you may have read – I have just been accepted into the anchor protection program – and I was told by my government handlers to change my appearance. Please don’t tell them that I am here…

Actually – I grew this despite the misgivings of my lovely bride Sandy – because for the first time in 26 years, I actually own my face…I am taking back the territory…thought about planting a flag…but that seemed like it would be painful…

It is always great to be here at my favorite space portal…the gateway to the universe…one of the smartest – and most fun – places on the planet – Disneyland for Nerds…

Mars is my second favorite planet – and many of you in this room helped make me feel as if I have been there…and how cool is that? Thanks for the outstanding vicarious ride these past 30 years or so.

Sometimes I think we can take for granted that we are now awash in amazing high revolution, panoramic, microscopic, three dimensional images shot on the surface – or in orbit.

What we have found is a place that looks an awful lot like home – if you are from New Mexico – and I think that is part of the appeal. Looking at the Eagle crater – a human being can imagine being there – in hiking boots.

It is truly a transformative experience – and when you consider all the proof we now have that this place was once warm and wet – we cannot help but look at those images and wonder about our place in the universe – and how close we are to learning if we have some company.

How great is it to be alive at this time – when we just might learn the answer to that question? We are lucky to have people like you who know how to get an answer…

Of course we have been curious about this since cavemen looked at the night sky – and said ”UG” – or when they saw the spaceship land and the little green men build Stonehenge.

I hear there may be another Stonehenge underwater in Lake Michigan. Alien SCUBA divers? Who knew?

While we’re on the subject of water and Mars – it is worth talking about the origins of our modern fascination with the Red Planet. It all begins with water – Giovanni Schiparelli  and the canali  that he wrote about.

He meant natural channels – but in this case something was gained in the translation – and people assumed he was talking about canals – which implies some sort of Martian Corps of Engineers.

No one took the ball farther and ran harder with that than the blue-blooded astronomer Percival Lowell. (You don’t hear about many boys being named Percival these days…do you?).

Lowell was convinced the canals were built by smart beings who were running out of water.


This of course begat HG Wells War of the Worlds…Orson Wells radio version of it…which begat Edgar Rice Burroughs…Marvin the Martian…Ray Bradbury…and Robinson Crusoe on Mars among other things…

And for a long time – there was nothing to stop the Martian train from rolling down the tracks… until 1964 – when you guys – or your scientific ancestors – launched a series of spacecraft called Mariner.

Scan line by scan line- the faxes from Mars gave us a whole new view of Mars – and it was not a good place to find or build some condos.

So much for that fun – but before we could get too depressed – we had some astronauts on the moon to entertain us…

And then – before too long Mars came into focus as it never had before…1976 – the Viking Landers arrived on the surface –  and the crowd went wild – Mars in vivid color – do not adjust your set – it really is kinda sepia there, ladies and gentlemen…

Viking did not find smoking gun proof of life on Mars – but then it does seem unlikely there would be any guns at all on Mars.

But seriously – the data was kind of ambiguous – and even today – as I understand it – scientists are not speaking with one voice on this – as they normally do…

Oh you mean you guys disagree at times?


Fast forward twenty years (now that is what I call a gap! – don’t do that again) – and Pathfinder: who could have predicted that one?

The internets as a mass medium were new – and the Google was just a glint in Sergei and Larry’s eyes…and there was Pathfinder on Mars – and JPL putting pictures on the web almost as fast as they got into the hands of the science team. How cool was that? Millions of hits – and the first global internet event was born. Mars was ready for is close-ups…

The missions that have followed have either built on this connection – or built on the suspense because they didn’t make it. Each time you take us back there – we learn something new – and see something cool – some spheres that had to be formed by water…or we touch and taste ice – and each time you take us to the very edge of what is possible. And we are there with you.

The Mars Rover team took the Pathfinder philosophy one step further – you allow the public to see every image you see. Remarkable. Nothing like that has ever happened in the history science as far as I know. (Of course, I am a history major).

No wonder Opportunity and Spirit  are so beloved – and so much a part of our pop culture. They are literally and figuratively  – rock stars. The mission ranks number one on the public awareness scale – in TV we call it a Q-rating – if I had Opportunity’s Q – I’d still be at CNN.

I think the thread that connects Schiaparelli and Lowell – to Opportunity Spirit and Phoenix is the quest for life outside out planet. You – and those of us in the media (I guess I am now technically a recovering journalist) have done a good job setting the bar on what might or might not be found on Mars.

There are not many people left who are expecting to see Marvin the Martian – or the ruins of an ancient civilization on Mars (even though some people are still fixated on that old face image that captured by Viking and debunked by mars Global Surveyor).

I guess I can now safely share with you an expression we use in the newsroom – never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
But my sense is people would be pretty excited if you found a fossil – matter of fact we have empirical proof of that given the DEFCON 1 media cluster -event- surrounding the Alan Hills 84001 meteorite announcement.

It’s not exactly what SETI has in mind as they soldier on in their daunting effort to make contact – but microbes on Mars are enough to lure people away from American Idol for a while…
I guess the moral of this – is because we are among the living – we are generally interested in other living things…and this brings me to the other great narrative that plays out here: it is the story of all of you.

I often wonder if you all are big gamblers – because what you do is such an all or nothing thing – in some cases risking nearly an entire career of hard work – on a 6 minute plunge into an alien atmosphere.

Let’s face it  – this is as exciting as science can be…we weren’t there for the serendipitous moments when researchers stumbled onto Teflon…or Velcro…or Post It Notes – and said, no doubt, Eureka! – before calling a patent lawyer…

But we are there when you have those moments of unbridled joy – when the all-in bet pays off – or not. In the business – we call this good TV. Suspense, reality – possible smoldering holes…everything but a vote to see who gets booted off the island.

Phoenix EDL, JPL mall area

Steve Squyres and I did a special when the Phoenix landed – and I gave all due praise to the gods of orbital mechanics – as the Earth Received Time of the landing was near the end of an hour. And so I sold CNN on the notion of an hour on Mars – with some recorded pieces – a look at some of the most interesting images from the various missions over the past 30 years – and of course frequent cuts to the control room live – as the team endured the hellish final minutes of the long trip to Mars.

It really was a nail biter – and even better – as Phoenix fell to Mars we had data  the whole way. And then the eruption…We could not have story-boarded an hour any better than that. The ratings were huge – the audience was global.

But the story was not really not so much about a robot on Mars as it was the humans who made it happen.

So the human adventure of doing all of this – is a great connection between those of you here – and those of us who only get a day pass to Disneyland for Nerds. Let’s be honest – this is not the strong suit for most scientists. But for whatever reason, you have been blessed with some great communicators – over the years – from Sagan to Squyres.

So I bet your thinking, Miles, if all this is so, why there isn’t more coverage in the Mainstream Media of our exploits? In the good old days, it was different: the coverage was longer, better and deeper (as opposed to faster better cheaper??) The reporters were enthused – almost cheerleaders – and the whole world was watching! (oh and the women were more beautiful – the kids smarter – and the beer tasted better too).

15-britney-spearsMARS PATHFINDER

So what has happened to the media? Why do we seem more interested in Britney Spears than Tony Spear?

How the hell should I know? I just got canned!

No seriously, a lot of this has to do with the space agency  which you are affiliated with – NASA ascribes to the “no Buck Rodgers no bucks” philosophy – and there is probably some truth in that theory. But sending humans into the vacuum creates a vacuum for the likes of you.

It is simply hard to compete with those operations in Houston and Florida – too much money – and too many fights over how the money has – and will – be spent.

Shuttle launch coverage has degenerated into little more than a deathwatch for the astronauts – and the space savvy press corps seems poised to pounce on the next gaffe.

The fact that CNN wiped out its entire – highly decorated science and technology unit – including yours truly – should tell you a lot about where things stand right now in the mainstream media.

We are talking about plate tectonics here – the world is shifting beneath the media’s feet. Once upon a time, we had healthy newspapers in this country – soon we will have nothing to line the bird cage or wrap the fish.

So what’s the advice? Plastics. Oh sorry, I guess I need to get with the program – and update that. No it is the internets – all of them.
Seriously, what you, in a sense, started in 1997 with the Pathfinder web-aganza – has grown at a Moore’s Law clip. Today – bloggers, tweeters, facebookers, random folks ranting with a DV camera and a Mac can – and do – compete with a globally deployed standing army of journalists with all their satellite trucks, camera crews, producers and reporters.

There are interested people out there – the mainstream media may no longer be the best way to reach them.  It just looks a lot different than those news conferences in the 60s and seventies.

So whatever you do, don’t stop – don’t stop exploring of course…but also don’t stop thinking of new ways to speak directly to your audience. This is the future – my teenage kids insist on a two-way transaction on most everything they do on line.

If they can’t be part of your adventure – they are outta there.

Fortunately you get this – you have a long history of letting the public in – and letting them look over your shoulders as you do your work. Just keep exploring new ways to engage them – never stop thinking of what is just over the horizon – on whatever planet you are on.



32 Responses to “My Speech to the Mars Rover Team at JPL”

  1. Pati Mc Says:

    Miles! It is so great to see that you have your own blog.

    Your speech is amazing, thanks for sharing it with us. Incredibly interesting and informative. As a fellow “science and space geek” I love reading this sort of thing.

    As far as your departure from CNN is concerned, I was saddened beyond belief. Frankly, I am still somewhat bitter. Especially when the A320 went down in the Hudson, your presence was sorely missed.

    You are a very bright man with an even brighter future; I feel certain that you will be fine. Your talents are needed and valued by many. Cannot wait to see your PBS doc.

    Be well Miles and all the best to you, sir.

  2. Susan Halligan Says:

    Miles … the kid who needed math tutors all through school (that would be me) gets to leave the first comment on your speech! You have a lot to say, not just about science, but about media, too … so put up a share button so viral marketing can take over from here. Susan Halligan

  3. Jen Says:

    Miles, welcome to the world of blogging. As a former aircraft mechanic and current aerospace technician, I appreciated you on CNN because you were one of the only people in the news media that knew what they were talking about when it came to aviation or aerospace. I have enjoyed following you and interacting with you on Twitter and I know that you are moving on to do much bigger and better things than what we’ve seen so far.

  4. Brian in Las Vegas Says:

    Wonderful! Thank you so much for having the blog now! Watching my favorite anchor (and geek) on Twitter is not the 22nd Century Miles as was searching for. My mom, brother and I are big fans – and those ages are 61, 33, and 41 respectively. So, you’re a generational guy.

    Again, congrats on the blog. Can’t wait to see (or hear – hellooo Podcast!!!) you in the future.

  5. jimmyc Says:

    I miss you on TV already. I doubt many reporters have your enthusiasm for science. Wherever you decide to report on science, we will watch (or read). So hurry up and get a job!

  6. Lois Says:

    Just wanted to add that I’m a total fan too, and very much miss you on CNN — but glad you have a blog to follow! 🙂 I was always so happy to see someone on tv just as enthusiastic about space as I have been since I was a kid! 🙂


  7. C L E Says:





  8. Jessica Says:

    I will miss seeing you on CNN.

    So, now you’re just another Perez Hilton sort of blogger. 😉

    Clever post. Thankful for anything that is not gossip garbage. Scientific is delicious!

    Are you on Twitter?

  9. Nick Says:

    Miles I am a big fan of Mars rovers and on my spear time I walk on mars thru the eyes of the rovers and I have found some intresting things that no one has mentioned on internet I would like to share them with you and get your thinking on this items. Yes Mars is crawling with life 🙂

    email me please
    your new friend


  10. Emily Lakdawalla Says:

    I don’t believe we’ve ever met, Miles, but I’ve long admired your space reporting and was dismayed at the implications of your firing. (Also, it sucks for you.) Welcome to the wild wild west that is blogging and thanks for posting this presentation! I’ll be tuning in to hear what you have to say!

  11. Mark Says:

    Miles, I am pleased to see you turn up on the web. I will be reading you. I remember watching “Science and Technology Week” and being so happy to see this stuff on the air. Times have changed. I’m a planetary scientist and have seen you working stories (even back to S/L-9) and have always been impressed. Good luck!

    I’ve been thinking lately about our current lack of a Carl Sagan and how that impacts coverage of science. I’m thinking it doesn’t really matter given the fragmentation. Even strong personalities who are good story tellers don’t seem to make it through the clutter. What do you think? Do we need a Carl Sagan? Cosmos almost bankrupted KCET, I don’t see that happening again.


    • milesobrien Says:

      Cosmos didn’t cost billions and billions – but I suspect it was not cheap. It was an epic TV event – seems like those words don’t mash up much anymore.

  12. Mark Adler Says:

    Funny you should mention Britney Spears.

    One of the ways to measure impact on the news is if you make the front page, and even better, if you’re above the fold line or not.

    So we successfully land Spirit on Mars, complete with a drama-inducing fifteen minutes of silence (which seemed like years), and following a failed attempt to land on Mars a few years earlier. We check the LA Times the next morning. We’re on the front page, but below the fold. Ok, still pretty good. But what’s the big news above the fold?

    Britney Spears got married in Las Vegas. Seriously.

  13. Angelia Joiner Says:

    I loved your speech to the Rover Team. You have so much to offer all of us, Miles. Keep it up.

  14. Angelia Joiner Says:

    I’m curious about something. Why does CNN abolish the Science/Tech team when Obama is promising to put scientists and their work back on the main page? Seems strange to me that they would do that with his current philosophy on this item.

  15. Rick Boozer Says:


    Another person here who thinks CNN flubbed it with you.

    Just thought that you and your readers would like to know that there has been a response posted to your speech at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s website:

  16. nick1969 Says:


    Here is the link on the mars picture i found lots of intresting things on

    Download picture to picture viewer on your computer and zoom in and search inch by inch and you be the judge.

    Please let me no if you are intrested, my english is not very good so forgive my spelling.

  17. JohnJ Says:

    re: Stonehenge Underwater in Lake Michigan.
    Well not exactly a Stonehenge but a University Professor in Canada, near the Great Lakes, thinks that there may have been a trade in copper between Lake Superior and Europe in Roman times. He postulates that there was a waterway east from Lake Huron through rivers systems that now flow west into the lake. But this waterway would have connected to what are now the Ottawa and St. Lawence rivers. He has estimated that the amount of copper in use in Europe, Asia and the Middle East at the time did not have a source of supply in those area. And evidence of mines around Lake Superior show that more copper may have been mined there than can be accounted for in North America through artifacts dating back to a time before Columbus and the New France (Quebec), Jamestown and Plymouth landings.

  18. Len Ward Says:

    Hello Miles.

    Though my wife Jane and I can rightfully ask for “senior” discounts, we are absolute fans of your intelligence, personality and command of facts.
    My suspicion is that like this Irishman, you’re not a big fan of office politics and that got in your way at CNN and likely will in most corporate environments.
    Best of luck to you. Do keep us all up to date on your doings…please.

  19. Stephanie Says:

    Miles, I’ve so enjoyed you and your terrific sense of humor. Those that don’t get it should get over themselves. I loved you on American Morning – with all the groans. You inspire by treating your intelligence with the humility of humor. I just thought it was a bad match with Soledad. I do watch CNN and I admire many of their staff but it is certainly not the measure of success as a person. I’m the 60 year old white woman that was supposed to vote for Hillary. Life is not always as it should be by some measures, I’m a total Obama supporter. I’m thrilled with Hillary in her position. McCain needs a little more work but he is also struggling to be true to his values. Please keep on being Miles and find a way for me to see you on a more regular basis. I’m not a blogger and it is only by chance that I found this when I did a Google on you just because I hadn’t seen you in a while. Anyway, you have the gift of being yourself. Keep sharing that gift.

  20. Christopher Lusardi Says:

    Hello Miles, hope to see you in space some day.

    I recently applied to the astronaut training program. If I win my small claims suit in California I may try to get a private pilot’s license in Seattle. It’s a class B air space and might help me enter astronaut training. (I won a John McCain POW bracelet for $5,301, but the original owner refuses to honor his EBay 7 day return policy. This bracelet shows signs of wear on the inside.) I also believe that it is wrong to make money on other people’s pain!

    I must have the largest collection of these McCain bracelets in the US. If I ever become an astronaut I would ask NASA if I could take one to space with me. I would then ask senator McCain which he wants and take to space for him, free. I have about 8 in almost brand new condition. They’re nickel plated, copper, and some have special trade mark acronyms.

    Anyway, I’m 52 and have been attracted to NASA for years and years. My story is a little different though. Sure as a child I watched the Apollo landings on a color tv, but that’s just the beginning. My real pre-occupation with NASA started while I was accumulating money for junior college in NY.

    At the same time Viking on Mars was having trouble with a pin or something such as that, a pin kept falling from a machine at work. Anyway, that’s where my magnetic attraction to NASA started. If you would like to here my story please get in touch.

    I have a page on the news group (ID: chrislusardi) with my resume. I, basically, have many degrees and will work on my resume for NASA.

  21. Christopher Lusardi Says:

    Hello Miles, I hope you make it to space some day.

    I just applied to the the Astronaut training program, but did not get interviewed. In a few years, I’m hoping to apply again.

    I’ve always kept up with NASA and found out recently that I could apply for an astronaut position. I never dreamed I could!

    If NASA would let me I would take a John S. McCain POW bracelet to space and give it to senator McCain for his service in Vietnam.

    I own about 10 of these old JSM POW bracelets. The better looking ones are nickel plated. They shine. I own 2 copper ones also. Some were made with a “VIVA” trademark and some were made with a “VIVA TM” trademark.

    All but 3 of my JSM bracelets are in mint condition, and I have a history of why the original owners purchased it.

    On April 10ish, I will go to a small claims court in Santa Clarita (at their court house) California to try to get someone to live up to their 7 day return policy. Basically, while John McCain was praising EBay on TV in a debate one of his bracelets was being sold on EBay. That bracelet has been badly worn away on the inside. Anyway, the person who I paid $5,301 refuses to honor his stated return policy of 7 days. One thing led to another, so I have to go to California some time around April 10 of this year to try to get my money back.

    The braclet that I paid $5k for was not the first bracelet placed up for auction. Another one was relisted because of bidding problems.

    All the other bracelets that I have cost me much less than $5k and are in better shape.

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