originally published August 15, 2012
Not since Marvin first pointed his ray-gun at Daffy has Mars been such a trending topic in our culture. Grainy photos are plastered all over our 24-hour news cycle, prompting space nuts to swoon and critics to question the point of it all.
So what is the point? NASA’s team tells us that they want to explore the history of Martian climate, whether the planet was ever habitable, and what role water may have played in its development. Again… what’s the point? Mars isn’t inhabitable now, nor will it ever be a viable alternative to our increasingly frail planet. There is a scientific justification that prattles into ‘learning about Mars will teach us about Earth’ territory, but I don’t buy it. When it comes down to it, with an economy that can barely reach up to the rim of the toilet bowl, with environmental and humanitarian crises that pop up around our planet like a perpetual outbreak of panicky zits, why are we spending so much money to fly a little car to Mars to take photos of what passes for a Martian landscape?
Because it’s fucking Mars, that’s why.
I grew up in the Space Shuttle era – after we’d stopped square-dancing on the lunar surface and before guys were teaching us yo-yo tricks on the space station. Daredevils never interested me; jumping over parked cars on a motorcycle simply doesn’t hold the same panache as stuffing oneself into a tiny tube and blasting into space. There’s simply no comparison.
I know I won’t live to see the day when some guy played by James Cromwell discovers the secret to warp-speed travel and invites pointy-eared English-speaking biped aliens to our planet. I know the reality of space travel in my lifetime probably won’t reach much further than making low-orbit a travel destination that I won’t be able to afford. Maybe we’ll figure out how to land a human on Mars, but it won’t be me.
So this might be it – the most extreme reach of humanity’s space-fingers in my lifetime. Sure, it’s a little remote-control truck motoring through a topographically uninteresting blandscape of Mars-dust and rocks, but it’s MARS! The volume of math and physics required just to land that thing on another planet in one piece is beyond my feeble ability to understand.
Lest you think I have wandered off my self-prescribed path of Wikipedian randomism in order to shill my unrequested opinions on a topical issue, let me assure you I came by this subject honestly. Ms. Wiki set me down comfortably inside the Eagle Crater on Mars, the landing zone for 2004’s Opportunity Rover.
And because I made a mention of this earlier without having noticed this picture, I feel for completeness’ sake that I should show an image of the launch patch that was utilized for the Opportunity Rover:
NASA named the crater after the infamous Landing Module that first touched down on the moon’s surface in 1969. The name also refers to the golf score, as NASA folks had referred to a successful landing in the crater as a ‘hole in one’.
So what did they discover in the crater? Well, rocks mostly. No one really expected to find ceramics from an ancient civilization or the fossilized remains of some prehistoric race of Martians – rocks were on the menu and the menu lived up to the hype.
The big score with Opportunity was a confirmation that there used to be water on Mars. Again, not practical information for those of us trying to pay the bills and adjust our fall budget so we can afford NFL Sunday Ticket, but it’s still fascinating. Tell-tale lines on the rocks showed erosion patterns that could only have been made by a slightly acidic, salty body of water. Or possibly by some strange Martian space-juice. I’m not completely up on the science here.
The nice thing about exploring such desolate and almost featureless terrain is that every outcrop of rock gets a name. To me, this would be the highlight of joining the space program. I’d want to give everything a name that would make me laugh, like Chocolate Pustule Rock or Mount Monkeypickle.
One outcrop of rock was named after the eighth-highest peak in Texas, El Capitan. A soil target got the name Cookies ‘N Cream. Another outcrop was labeled Last Chance, probably after the 1999 indie film written and directed by pre-Malcolm In The Middle and very pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston. Okay, that one’s a long-shot.
Opportunity wasn’t expected to land in Eagle Crater. They didn’t even know the place existed; the craft landed about 25 kilometers away from NASA’s intended target. That might sound like a miss, but they landed the thing on the planet. I’d say it’s a win.
The little vehicle dug a trench and revealed small, shiny stones that weren’t visible on the surface. It spotted wispy clouds in the Martian sky. It identified the first known meteorite to have hit another planet. If none of this boggles your scientific imagination, then you’re probably one of those people who look at the potholes on your street and wish the government would quit funding space exploration and fix the damn asphalt already.
But there should always be funding made available for channeling our curiosity. Humanity has run out of new land to explore, and it’s about time one of those little specs in the sky starts giving up some data.
Opportunity is still out there. The plan was never to transport the thing back to Earth, but I mean Opportunity is still actively exploring out there. Thanks to its solar array, which regularly accumulates energy to keep its cogs turning, Opportunity is still helping us map out the Martian landscape eight years after its arrival.
We need to keep playing around up there, if for no other reason than we can. If the doom-spewers are correct and our time on this planet really is limited, then I think we owe it to ourselves to indulge our curiosities and elbow our technology to the brink of coolness. Because we can. Because we should.
And because you never know – one of the Martian rovers might unlock the real secrets of Mars. Yes, this is where I toss in the obligatory reference to Total Recall (the original one), and the woman everyone still talks about from that film: