A shock hit NASA's Mission Madness tournament when the fight between the SPB balloon mission and the MER rovers "Spirit" and "Opportunity" escalated to unexpected levels. And now you can find out just how this happened. 'Mission Madness' is a NASA Edge-run voting contest where the public gets to vote for their favorite mission, in a series of 1-on-1 brackets leading to the final winner. In round 1, last week, the Superpressure Balloon mission (SPB) was pitted against the Mars Exploratory Rovers (MER), better known as Spirit and Opportunity. On one hand, you have a balloon almost one and a half football fields in size, able to fly for more than 50 days. On the other side, two plucky rovers that have survived Mars's worst for longer than anyone could have expected. What made the voting so unusual was the huge number of votes received. Most of the brackets were getting 3-5000 votes. Friendship 7 versus SR-71, 1750 to 2088. Apollo 11 vs Mars Phoenix, 2758 to 2584. But SPB versus MER? 16781 versus 15559-- four or five times as many votes as any other bracket! Who was voting for these, was the system being gamed, is corruption lurking in the heart of Mission Madness? We'll answer these questions here and now! First, on the rover side, there was a strong effort from both project scientists and general rover fans. Yes, Spirit & Opportunity use twitter: @MarsRovers (though curiously down at the time of this article's first posting). One advocate, Keri Bean (@aggieastronaut), pushed for Mars fans to even the score. All part of the game-- this is indeed a vote early, vote often event. But there were allegations that the balloon count was being inflated by an auto-voting 'bot or, as put rather dramatically, Either that or some rover-hating sociopath has way too much time on his hands. Harsh allegations indeed, clearly both MER and SPB supporters have an emotional stake in this. Time to do research. Chris at NASA Edge agreed that "the SPB win over the Mars Rovers was a shock to many Mars fans across the country". I asked Chris whether there was a clear sign of a 'bot for SPB, whether all the votes were coming from a single IP address. And indeed they were not-- the votes were legit. Chris was on top of the situation already, and had this to add: So according to the Superpressure Balloon team, they wanted to make sure many more people would learn about their mission success and the important information it provided. They are networking with Wallops Flight Facility, Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, Aerostar Balloon Facility, scientists and their teams, and students at New Mexico State University who participate in the NASA Balloon Program sponsored “Suborbital Center of Excellence” all voting SPB to make it to the next round. Chris concludes with, "If that is not team work then I do not know what is", a statement I heartily agree with. My earlier predictions about MER falling to acronym obscurity certainly did not happen, instead, we have this very interesting social experiment. Stay tuned for future rounds! If you're new to Mission Madness, there's still more brackets to vote, up to the finale in early April. You can vote on round 3 on March 26-27 (Thursday and Friday of this week), and NASA Edge are providing updates on the voting via Twitter. Until next round,
Alex, the Daytime Astronomer