The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must
Imagined Worlds: The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures
In the sky at dusk some midsummer evenings one could see two lights that evoked distinct lines of thought about the American space program and its uncertain future—Mars, rust-red and unblinking, suspended low in the southwest, and the Mir space station, a white dot that could be seen gliding overhead before disappearing into Earth’s shadow.
Aboard Mir, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut were pretty much fighting for their lives. As the astronaut Jerry Linenger remarked, after he returned from his own recent tour of duty aboard Mir, the cries of alarm one least wants to hear on a space station are “Fire!” and “Depressurization!” and yet Mir suffered both within a matter of months. This pair of emergencies, set against a sobering series of ongoing breakdowns and mishaps—an estimated 1500 of them since Mir was launched, in 1986—had frayed the nerves of the spacefarers to an unsettling degree. After a collision with an automated supply vessel depressurized part of the station, the Mir commander, Vasily Tsibliev, radioed to Earth, “We are alive, thank God.” These are not heartening words, though they do attest to Tsibliev’s penchant for blurting out what’s actually on his mind—a tendency that led to his being blamed, briefly, for Mir’s mishaps, until a replacement crew promptly began running into problems of their own.
Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to Mir, the Pathfinder lander was engaged in its spectacularly successful exploration of a ruddy, rock-strewn wadi at the mouth of Ares Vallis, Mars. Data and photographs from the vehicle and its appealing little rover were being studied by scientists who hoped to find clues to what the Red Planet was like in balmier days, during its first millennium, when there were rivers and lakes there, and a thicker, warmer blanketing atmosphere. The mission attracted enormous public interest, generating one hundred million “hits” on the mission’s Internet website in a single day. That’s an astonishing number, larger than the combined audiences of the nightly news broadcasts on the three major commercial television networks, and one that challenges the common wisdom that people care about space exploration only if astronauts’ lives are on the line.
For decades, it has been assumed in Congress and elsewhere that public support of NASA programs depends on the drama of manned spaceflight. But this was never more than an article of faith, and it began to sound dated once astronauts no longer ventured to the moon, and automated spacecraft like Viking, Voyager, and the Russian Venera Venus landers were sending back evocative images of worlds millions of miles away. Now that the Internet has created a new medium in which the public is much more free to make its own choices, the vote seems to be going the other way. Millions of Internet users are finding that 3-D pictures and virtual reality landscapes of Mars and other planets, called up at their pleasure on their computer screens, create a sense of being there that compares favorably to the experience of watching…
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