Sci Fi Microstory
Did Curiosity kill the cat?
Well, the headline writers couldn’t resist it, could they? “Did Curiosity kill the cat?”
As head of the Mars Exploration Research Centre, only I know the answer to the mystery that has puzzled the world since 2013. And by the time you read this, it’s a secret I will have taken with me to the grave.
I still remember the excitement that day 15 years ago, when the Mars Rover ‘Curiosity’ found bones on the Red Planet. Extra-terrestrial life had been found!
And then – the discovery of further remains that were, quite clearly, a cat. The media said Curiosity had run over the cat. The first road-kill in outer space.
But still – who took the cat there? Theories multiplied.
The Chinese had conducted secret missions, sending cats into space. It was proof that aliens had abducted life-forms from Earth, then somehow mislaid one en route to wherever they were heading. Time-travelling humans had visited Mars.
One crank cult believed a species of future felines, the creatures we evolve into over the next 10,000 years, travel through time and lost one of their infants there.
The truth goes back to 2003, when I was senior engineer on the Beagle 2 project – the most expensive flop in the history of the British space programme.
We had such high hopes. Beagle 2 would be launched from the orbiting Mars Express. It would bounce to a safe landing on Mars. Then it would open up its clam-like structure, and send back a rich vein of data about the Red Planet. But we lost contact with after it separated from Mars Express – and that was that.
What went wrong? Official investigations suggest a problem during descent. It fell too fast, and burned up. Its parachutes failed to open, or its airbags failed to deploy. Its design was insufficient to withstand the heat, velocity or impact.
In reality, the problems started in Baikonur in Kazakhstan, on launch day. As usual, we were in a flap. I was late. On the way to the Cosmodrome I saw on the side of the road a sack that seemed to be alive. I stopped the taxi, and went to look. Inside the sack were three young cats, in a pitiable condition. Being an animal lover, I took the cats with me. On arrival I gave them some milk in the kitchen, and left them in the care of a cleaner.
You’ve guessed the rest. Somehow, in our busy-ness, we let down our guard. Somehow, in our final check, one of the cats crept in and, I suspect, got into Beagle 2’s protective shell.
My joy at the successful launch turned to unease when I only found two cats in the rest area. Discretely I hunted high and low, but one had gone.
Truly, as they say, no act of kindness goes unpunished. Doubly so, in this case. The Beagle failed, at huge cost. How I winced every time someone used the word ‘catastrophe’. How I winced again during the recession, whenever economists talked of a ‘dead cat bounce’.
The poor creature I tried to rescue must have been dead soon after take-off. Maybe its weight put all our calculations out of kilter. Maybe its oozing body juices seeped into the electrics. Who knows exactly?
I kept it all to myself, hoping the cat had slipped safely away. But when Rover sniffed out the cat’s bones ten years later my fears were confirmed. Still I kept quiet.
I am not proud of this. Every day, when I look in the mirror, I see a man who is not a great and revered scientist, but a fraud. And yet … If I had owned up, my career would have ended, at no benefit to mankind. I made the mess. I should clear it up and take us forward.
And standing behind me in the mirror, I see the shadow of bungling, hubristic humanity.
So I know we will go on, making a hash of everything we touch, undermining our hopes by our stupidity, then covering up our crimes and follies in the hope of profit, or in the self-deceiving hope of making amends. Onwards to the stars, my friends!