FIRST DRIVE

We came in our virtual droves
To watch her rove for the very first time.
Not yet beautiful, or elegant – none watching
Could ever claim that of the white metal box
Balanced on its six fat, coal-black wheels.
She sat there, frozen in the floodlights’ glare
Like a robot fly trapped in sky-blue amber,
Or a captured and chained alien machine,
Surrounded by wide-eyed scientists, shining
Snowman-white in their oh-so-funny bunny suits.
Some standing, some kneeling, others lying flat
On the sterilised ground like snipers,
Long-lensed cameras, not rifles, levelled
At the creature crouched there before them; all
Waiting for it to move, all waiting breathlessly
For proof its wheels really could carry its bulk
Across Barsoom –

Then one by one they were gone,
Leaving the Clean Room silent and still.
Just a single blue light, stolen from the TARDIS roof,
Blinking slowly in the corner…

I watched through four layers of glass, the first and last
Separated by several thousand miles, smiling as one by one
The engineers and techs returned and, urged on by furiously-typing
Ustream viewers – many playing truant from their
Jobs in schools and banks and bars – waved at
The camera from the floor; self-consciously at first,
Then, the party mood taking hold, more boldly:
One bravely broke into a robot dance,
Arms and legs jerking stiffly to our delight; final,
Definitive proof that rocket scientists are people too…
But as we cheered and laughed, behind him
The rover, offended by this mocking of her kind,
Said nothing. And stubbornly refused to move.

Suddenly a veritable invasion of Bunny Men –
The Clean Room packed again as The Big Moment
Approached. The rover, surrounded, brooded
On its cobalt coral mat as stalking techs walked this way and that
Around her, taking up position as the time ticked by.
Gingerly, two took up the braided, tree-trunk cable
Connecting her to her disembodied brain and we knew
Her Time was near –

“She’s moving!” I called out across the room
As, without warning, the black barrel wheels began to turn,
Rolling the rover across the floor, snail-slow at first,
But oh-so beautifully!
“It’s alive!” a happy Ustreamer typed; another tapped “WooHoo!”
As MSL slid silently across the blue…
One day those wheels will roll o’er Mars.
Scrunching and crunching over Ares’ ancient rocks,
Carrying Curiosity, her cameras and computers
Across the Big Country landscape of the next New World.
And each sol they do, back here on Earth
A thousand unashamed rover-huggers will remember
The pride they felt the day they saw her take
Her “baby steps” First Drive…

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

Note #1: Thanks to The Planetary Society’s blogger extraordinaire Emily Lakdawalla for the animation of Curiosity, left…

Note #2: I should point out that the techs and engineers were going on a break when they were doing their stuff; they weren’t meant to be working! 🙂

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