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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.  🙂

One Response

  1. Sorry, Stu… I politely — respectfully — disagree completely! 😉

    Actually that’s not true. I agree that the MERs are an absolutely extraordinary thing which don’t get anything like the attention and recognition they merit outside the specialist media. They have accomplished extraordinary things, and continue to do so (I hope for many sols to come.) I wish we had more – Mars rovers, that is, not MERs – I think it’s almost literally criminal that there are empty launch slots in the years ahead – but I know Spirit and Oppy are up there with the Voyagers, Venera, Soyuz 1 and Apollo as outstanding, “top 5” (or top 10) human achievements in space.

    However! I think the chances of a human actually landing on Mars – ever – are extremely slim. If we ever /do/ manage it, I would be absolutely astonished if humanity spends that amount of money to go and collect souvenirs of past missions for their own sake. A museum on Mars, with glass cases and tourist snapshots, is… well, to put it politely, science fiction. Just because technologies are around today that would have seemed like science fiction fifty or a hundred years ago, that does NOT mean that anything which can be expressed as SF is practical, or physically possible.

    Whilst it may (just) be possible, one day, to “land men on Mars and return them safely to Earth”, that doesn’t change the physics or biology that define us, the environment of Mars, and what’s needed to go there, survive there, and come back again. As someone else pointed out, I’ll believe in human colonisation of space once we’ve colonised the bottom of the Atlantic and the Gobi Desert.

    Personally, I’m with van Allen. Robots are the only way to go! Surely one of the inspirational thing about MER (one of many) is the demonstration of what unmanned rovers are capable of achieving. Yes there are things a human could do in ten seconds which would take a rover days to accomplish (and things a rover would have great difficulty managing at all that a human would find easy). However it’s also true that a human wouldn’t want to stand over the same rock for 60 hours holding a Mössbauer in place, or patiently wait for weeks for dust devils to come past. And consider that anyone with a network connection can get the MER data, whereas the human experience of being on Mars – which seems to be a major part of the appeal of it to you; correct me if I’m wrong – is only ever accessible to a handful of humans per generation (if we spend that absurd amount of resources needed to make it happen.) Think how many MER -form-factor vehicles you’d get for the cost of even a single manned mission!

    Dreams are good. As Dan le Sac said, “I like being asleep. It’s a nice place to be.” I think it’s important to distinguish practical engineering from wishful thinking, dreams and visions.

    Keep up the amazing anaglyphs! I hope I haven’t further alienated you or too many UMSFers with this blasphemous opinion… :-.


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