Home > F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution, M. Stars > Mars & More (or, Why the Jetsons Got it Right)

Mars & More (or, Why the Jetsons Got it Right)

More than any other single image returned by the Mars Rovers (Opportunity and Spirit), this view of Victoria Crater brought home to me the reality of the Red Planet. Though we have learned that the surface of Mars is a frigid desert and its atmosphere thin and poisonous, there is something absolutely terrestrial about the photograph. It could have been taken in any desert on Earth–a crater under a sky dark with dust. All that is missing is a human figure, dressed in burnoose, cowboy hat, or loincloth, it doesn’t matter. In our guts, we know this landscape.

Over the last two decades, America’s robotic exploration of Mars has returned a massive amount of information concerning the atmosphere, climate, and surface of the planet most likely to become New Earth. We know that water once flowed on the surface, that there is an ocean of water lying frozen in subterreanean glaciers, and that some of this water may still escape above ground, where it soon evaporates in the minimal carbon-dioxide atmosphere. And our last planned rover, Curiosity, will arrive at Gale Crater in August of this year with the task of finding signs of life in an area that satellite photography has indicated may well have supported at least primitive lifeforms. Curiosity, by the way, is about five times larger than either of the current rovers.

But that’s it. NASA plans no further landers, only a single orbiter to continue investigating the atmosphere.

So, you might be wondering, why the sudden lack of enthusiasm? The answer is: the scale of the project. We’ve sent orbiters and rovers to Mars for a few pennies a mile; putting a man on Mars will undoubtedly cost much more than has ever been spent on a manned space mission: Mars is (at closest approach) 36 million miles from Earth; it takes spacecraft 9 months to get there (and, of course, another 9 to return); and the intense solar radiation experienced during transit (and on the surface) might give anyone second thoughts about going.

So, we have to wonder: wouldn’t the money be better spent someplace else (like putting people in houses)?

Nothing is impossible if you want it badly enough. The question is, how badly do we want Mars? Pretty badly, if we look at the global population explosion. And while there are still large, mostly unpopulated tracts in various places, other locales, say Japan, China, and India, are dealing with population densities that challenge their ability to survive.

Not so incidentally, it is precisely these countries that are entering the Space Club with ambitious unmanned–and manned–missions. India has said it will put a man on the moon by 2020; China plans to follow suit by 2030.

& it’s not like a country gets nothing from its investments in space; just think of the computer revolution. Why is that the United States seems to be willing to fall behind in applications of technology like high-speed trains; high-density, low-energy housing developments; and space colonization? Are we really going to let someone else build the first space elevator? Whatever happened to American ingenuity and initiative?

RT may be a poet, but he can see that science creates real improvements in quality of life. So what are we going to do?

Photo: Victoria Crater Seen From its Edge; Opportunity Rover; WikiCmns; NASA-JPL; Public Domain w/ attribution.

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  1. April 16, 2012 at 6:48 pm

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