I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase coined before when watching one of Gene Roddenbury’ episodes of StarTrek with the amicable Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk. I was a little surprised that president Bush didn’t bother using it when announcing that the United States would be shooting for putting a man on Mars within this decade as well as going back to the moon with a manned mission. Whether or not fueled by his desire to win votes for the upcoming elections I can only wholeheartedly agree that space exploration is the way to go. And looking at it from a global perspective the Chinese are playing catch up and have announced that they’ll also be shooting for the moon and beyond soon, so certainly the United States cannot trail behind. But is this a realistic target and something which we can accomplish in the next decade and furthermore is their enough public support for financing such a mission and what would be its driving force?
Fig 1. A look from the Mars Spirit rover still on it's platform taken with the hazard avoidance camera.
Granted, we’ve been to the moon before, now over three decades ago, that mission was fueled by the space race between the US and Russia during the cold war and was the result of the accumulated effort of thousands of engineers and a nation wanting to show the world that democracy and capitalism are the way to go. The entire world was locked to their TV set when Neil Armstrong made it down the ladder and uttered the words that describe exactly what the effort made by the US was, a gaint leap for mankind. Unfortunately after a few moon landings the Apollo 13 mission clearly showed that the world lost interest and was obviously under the impression that moon mission where about as common as taking a flight out to Europe. Only when the mission went awry due to an explosion aboard the Apollo 13 on the way to the moon the media once again started paying attention.
Fig 2. A look from the Mars Spirit rover on the Martian surface, again taken with the hazard avoidance camera.
We see a similar thing happen in present day, Shuttle missions that are performed without a hitch barely make it to the news, yet the breakup of Shuttle Columbia during reentry on February 2nd of last year was on the eight o’ clock news for a solid week and a half. Obviously the effort behind peforming a flawless mission is not as newsworthy as a mission going awry. Fortunately the NASA now has once again got a mission to be proud off, the Spirit Mars lander is driving around the Martian surface as you read this and is accumulating data that hopefully will answer the question whether or not Mars has sustained life in the past. Unfortunately the European Beagle 2 probe has yet to phone home and has most likely been lost, which again puts the US in the lead in the exploration of Mars. Obviously this was a good opportunity for president Bush to announce renewed interest in further exploration of our solar system.
Fig 3. A color photo of Mars, part of a whole series of shots taken with the full color panorama camera.
We’ll have to see however whether Bush is able to create enough momentum for these plans to motivate congress to fund the manned mission to Mars and establish a permanent Moon base on the lunar surface. I think it’ll be a wise decision to venture out into space once more and explore our solar system as the return investment would be well worth it. As we’ve seen from the Apollo missions hunderds of new technologies and products have resulted from that program, including new medicines and treatment for diseases. I for one can’t wait to see the human race finally set foot on another planet and establish a human presence throughout or solar system as it is in man’s nature to explore and broaden it’s horizons as well as try to answer the age old question of whether we’re alone and where we’re coming from. Exploring Mars would be a small step towards finding our roots, the origin of life on earth, or the basics of how life establishes itself, and we might be in for a surprise, life could be just as common as snow in winter.