What are We Waiting For?
What are we looking at here? Images of the dessert of the American Southwest? A particularly desolate region of the Australian Outback perhaps? No, these are all pictures of Mars, taken by one of the Mars rovers. There are two of these little robots wandering around the surface of Mars, and for over 500 days now, they've been taking pictures and collecting data and sending it all back to the earth. As if all of that weren't remarkable enough, the rovers were only expected to last about 90 days! If they had only lasted as long as their mission were intended, the wealth of information they collected would still have made the program a smashing success, but these little robots have continued to operate for more than 5 times their expected life span. And they show no signs of stopping!
I've always been fascinated by space, ever since I was a little kid. I check NASA's sight regularly to check for updates about the Mars rovers, and another mission I am fascinated by, the Huygens/Cassini mission - this one to Saturn and it's moons. The things they scientists are discovering from these missions is amazing. And the images are spectacular. I admit, I'm a real geek when it comes to this stuff, and I've never been able to figure out why EVERYONE doesn't have the same gut level reaction to this as I do.
I grew up in a decade (the 70's) when there was incredible optimism about space exploration and travel. Coming off the success of the first mission to the moon, NASA and the nation were caught up with the idea of exploring and colonizing space. By 2000 we were going to have orbiting space stations housing hundreds if not thousands of people. There was going to be a permanent colony on the moon. We were going to send manned missions to Mars and possibly beyond. Space colonization was going to solve the problem of overcrowding on earth. I used to draw designs of space stations with self contained little cities on them where people lived and worked and played. As a boy, these ideas captured my imagination in huge ways. And here it is 2005, and those ideas are mostly dead. What a shame.
Do you know, that for the money that the US has poured into the Iraq war and occupation, we could have sent several manned missions to Mars. Imagine it! Human beings setting foot on another planet. Many politicians argue that manned space missions are too expensive and a huge waste of money. I don't know, I think a trip to Mars would have been a significantly better use of billions of dollars, then the debacle we are now engaged in in Iraq. "What benefits would we get out it?" the politicians ask. I think that is a stupid question. The truth of the matter is, I think it is part of human nature to want to explore. The drive to go out and explore the unknown has been a critical factor in the history of the human race. Maybe there is nothing there, who knows. But even to only find that out would make the trip worth it. To be able to say that the human race left the comfortable realm of the known to go out and explore the unknown and discovered that there wasn't much to discover would be huge!
My imagination isn't completely cold yet. I'm still hoping for a renewal of that spirit of exploration and adventure that so moved the country 30 and more years ago. I still believe that in my lifetime, we will send people to Mars - I just hope it is sooner, rather than later.