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The Spirit of 2004 better than Star Wars - Ed Brock

We are on Mars. That's right, all of us, every human being, is essentially on Mars this very minute.

Granted, we look a bit like a wad of tinfoil with wheels, but that is us up there, nonetheless.

There are a lot of bad things I could have picked to write about for this, my first column of '04, but I'm just too happy right now about the successful landing of the Martian probe Spirit. Coming as it does so soon after the apparent loss of the European probe Beagle 2, the arrival of Spirit in Gusev Crater on the Red Planet is a nice way to start the new year.

Spirit, and its mechanical colleague Opportunity that is scheduled to (cross your fingers) land in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on Jan. 24, are golf-cart-sized rolling science labs on the prowl for signs of ancient Martian life.

I think they even have arms with which to snatch the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator away from Marvin the Martian.

If Opportunity is as successful as Spirit in its fiery descent to the Martian surface, we will have eyes on both sides of the planet, and that's just as good as being there. The probes are bigger and more capable than their comparatively puny predecessor Sojourner that landed there in 1997.

I know, I know, people are dying in the world, the poor are still poor and humanity has yet to get the war monkey off its back. So why are we spending so much money to build little robots that go to Mars?

Because we must. Because in a few more centuries humanity will have two choices, start putting limits on how many babies people can have and how long they can live or expand the species into outer space.

The more positive approach is expansion. And since that will take a long time to plot and plan, these kinds of missions are practice runs for the inevitable manned mission to Mars.

I'd like to see that happen in my lifetime, but if it doesn't, well, c'est la vie. It's not like I'll be the one going. So much for my childhood dreams of being a vagabond space pilot like Han Solo.

Indeed, that's the wonderful thing about these probes. It's the closest thing most of us will get to being on Mars. And this time they say the pictures are going to be better than ever.

Cool!

The mission is set to last for at least three months, and apparently I'm not alone in my excitement. According to an Associated Press story NASA's Web site got 109 million hits in the 24 hours in which the landing occurred and the number of hits continues to rise. By midday Sunday the number of hits was already around one third of the number of hits drawn by the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the landing of the Pathfinder (Sojourner's lander), both of which drew some 750 million hits.

That's a lot of people with the same interest in what we're doing on the surface of the fourth rock from the sun, and that's further justification for this mission. Not to mention we may learn a thing or two about Marvin's real-life relations, if there ever was life on Mars.

This is better than "Star Wars." This is the real thing, and I like it.

Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities for the News Daily. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at ebrock@news-daily.com.