As I've mentioned before, I love a good outrageous space headline — and the more they personify science or mold it to sound like a space opera, the better. But it's interesting to note that the "great galactic ghoul" traces back not to a science beat editor's desk, but to NASA itself.
There's a great deal of trial and error in deep space exploration, and the '60s and '70s saw the U.S. and the Soviet Union lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 spacecraft. NASA provides an excellent list here and oobject posted a photo gallery of 12 Mars failures last year. As NBC Space Analyst James Oberg points out, even the simplest flight paths to Mars require months of travel. During the early days, radio communication was weak with lengthy signal gaps. The losses even continued into the 1990s with the loss of the Mars Observer.
So at some point, NASA personnel began to use the term "galactic ghoul" to personify the risks associated with missions to Mars and, later, space missions in general. In a 1997 interview, the Jet Propulsion Lab's Mars program manager Donna Shirley said, "The great galactic ghoul had to get us somewhere and apparently the ghoul has decided to pick on the rover."
Naturally, the ghoul has plenty of ancestors. Old maps warn of dragons in isolated waters, Royal Air Force pilots in World War II often attributed aircraft problems to mischievous gremlins and we have our pick of 20th century Bermuda Triangle theories. But as with Mars, these cases all break down to the odds of technological or human failure in risky or high-traffic environments.
As for the galactic ghoul, NASA featured this amusing reference to the creature in a Halloween card. Having read too many Dungeons and Dragons manuals, however, I have to point out that the Spitzer Space Telescope image looks nothing like the corpse-munching monsters of fiction and fable. I mean, come on, that's MAYBE a bug bear.
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Image: It loves the great taste of Mars probe. (Allied Artists/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)