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On Mars…

It always amazes me that people Out There, in the big wide world, aren’t as amazed as I am by the fact that four years – FOUR YEARS!!! – after landing, two ‘plucky little rovers’ are still driving around on Mars, taking photographs, making observations and doing science. I know there are other real life concerns – the Credit Crunch, politics, elections, children to raise, etc – but still, the epic adventures of Spirit and Opportunity are surely deserving of more than just a casual mention whenever something goes wrong or a particularly striking image is returned?

It frustrates the hell out of me, to be honest, I want to run down the street sometimes yelling “Don’t you lot know we’re on Mars?!?!?! Go online! Look at the pictures! They’re amazing!!!!” But I calm myself when I look inwards, at the picture I have, very clear in my mind, of future martians seeing the rovers, on Mars, and shaking their heads in wonder at their achievements and the skill of their designers, builders and drivers.

I can see the actual rovers themselves on display – alongside the Vikings, Phoenix, MSL, the collected wreckage of Beagle 2  and other pieces of hardware – in a Museum of Mars. By then the MERs will be thought of as priceless artefacts, and will be protected behind diamond-glass or something like that, still bearing some of the dust that coated them during their travels. Surrounded by displays of their most stunning panoramas and portraits of Steve , Jim and others, they’ll be two of the Museum’s greatest attractions, and martians will pose beside them for photographs just as we go to the Smithsonian and pose beside the Apollo capsule or the other exhibits there. And they will feel awe that two such tiny, fragile-looking machines Did All That, travelled so far, overcame so many challenges and refused to die, no matter what Mars threw at them.

And then there’ll be the Spirit and Opportunity Trails to follow: maybe once or twice a year, groups of native martians and visitors from other worlds will take shuttles or rovers to the rovers’ landing sites and, guided by a historian of some kind, will follow in the wheeltracks of the rovers, across Gusev and Meridiani, stopping to see the rocks they drilled, pausing to view the same views the rovers photographed and looking for individual stones immortalised on their pictures. Kids will walk around the outside of Eagle Crater, looking down at the exposed layers of bedrock; young couples will stand beside ‘Humphrey’, beaming for the camera as their picture is taken; families will join hands and start the hike up to the summit of Husband Hill and, after reaching the peak, stand together and look down on the great plain of Gusev, see dust devils dance beneath them, see the Sun sinking behind the distant hills, and wish that they’d been alive when Spirit sent back pictures of that very view; dozens of Mars enthusiasts from the Moon, or elsewhere, will stand in a line on the edge of Victoria Crater, at the very edge of Beacon, peer down into its depths, and imagine what it would have been like to sit by a computer on Earth in 2008 and see pictures of that very same view appear on the screen, just hours after being taken. They’ll envy us, just as we already envy them.

Eventually they’ll reach the end of the Trails, the spot where each rover actually rolled to a halt and finally died. There they’ll find life-size replicas of the rovers, and will cluster around them, almost reverently, amazed to see just how small they look compared to the enormous martian Big Country landscape around them. I’m sure they’ll reach out and touch the rovers… we humans like to make a physical connection with people and things we admire and respect… and feel again a tremendous sense of awe that such a small, fragile-looking thing could achieve so much.

Some people say the MERs are “only machines”. In that case HMS Victory is “only a ship”, Scott’s hut is “only a shed” and the Apollo 11 capsule in the Smithsonian is “only a metal cone”. These things were dreamed of, designed and built by people, that’s the point, not that they are just mechanical things. Every Sol the MERs have roamed Mars has been another step towards a future where we live on Mars, every turn of their wheels has brought us closer to the day when a young martian child stands outside their hab module home at sunset, looks to the west and delights at the sight of Earth shining there like a sapphire in the sky.
I find it sad that people don’t get that, I really do. But I’m trying my best to help at least some of them see.  🙂