News Column

The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Mike Sweet column

January 28, 2014

By Mike Sweet, The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa

Jan. 28--A common snail can travel faster and further than Opportunity, the robotic rover that NASA sent to study the surface of Mars.

Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of its unmanned landing on the red planet.

In all that time it has traveled just 24 miles, but it's sent back to Earth 170,000 detailed images of the planet and immense amounts of data about Mars' geology.

Nicknamed Oppy, the rover had a twin named Spirit that got stuck in sand at an awkward angle and presumably froze to death in 2011 after sunlight stopped striking its solar panels.

Oppy is gradually falling apart too. One wheel dangles uselessly, its limbs creak from metal fatigue and some of its scientific instruments don't work. But it plods on doing good science.

In recent weeks, Oppy found more evidence that Mars was once wet enough to have harbored life forms, and thus may still.

Some 5,200 miles away from Opportunity, a third, much newer and far bigger rover named Curiosity also is exploring Mars. It too previously confirmed that geologically Mars was once inhabitable.

Though scientists insist on qualifying that conclusion by saying the findings don't mean life did exist on Mars. They're careful not to worry philosophers and clerics who may not be ready for such a monumental challenge to their Earth-centric beliefs about life and God's capabilities.

But it's logical that if we don't destroy Earth first, the day inevitably will come when humans learn we are not -- or at some past point were not -- alone in the universe.

Space exploration can be dull but does have intriguing moments. Like last week when a mysterious rock appeared in view of Opportunity's camera lens. It led to speculation from some quarters that something had to put it there when the rover was otherwise preoccupied.

Of course with so much rocky detritus swirling around in space looking for landfall, the explanation for the rock's origin is most likely mundane. In a further letdown for alien hunters, it's surmised that while turning around Opportunity's wheels kicked the rock into view.

Opportunity and Spirit were supposed to survive only a few months in Mars' inhospitable environment. Even with Spirit now dead, a decade on the twins remain marvels of American engineering.

But there's talk in Washington that the cost-cutting obsessives in Congress will try to make NASA shut Opportunity down, thus assuring opportunities for more discoveries die prematurely with it.

Monitoring Oppy costs taxpayers $14 million year. That's not a lot -- about what Congress spends on its members' haircuts, meals, travel subsidies and other perks.

Private ventures are gradually taking over NASA's government-funded role in space travel and research. But the notion that NASA should have no functional capability in exploration is ludicrous. When those private companies' pipe dreams burst, someone will have to pick up the pieces if the U.S. is to stay in the business of exploring the universe.

The alternative is to let other countries take over, take the credit and reap the rewards knowledge imparts.

China, for example, may be reinventing the wheel with its unmanned Jade Rabbit rover now prowling the Moon where American astronauts once walked. But what it learns may one day propel it ahead of the original space pioneers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Russia is still in the launch business. And in a sad commentary on the U.S.' diminished Earth orbit capability, the now shuttle-less NASA contracts with Russia to deliver astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station.

Sometime this year NASA is expected to award a contract to one of several U.S. companies vying to produce a space shuttle replacement that is cheaper, less complicated, and has a faster turnaround between flights. Those commercial developments also are being helped along with tax dollars, which isn't a bad thing.

By continuing to use its reliable if antique rocket and capsule technology, Russia has fallen behind Japan and the Europeans when it comes to investing in new designs. Even Iran and India are shooting for the stars, so to speak, or at least the moon. Every country with dreamers and disposable income craves space cred.

Centuries ago, the Dutch were masters of exploring and exploiting the unknown world, from the Americas to Africa and Asia.

So it should be no surprise that a Dutch group called Mars One wants to send the first humans to Mars around 2025.

The privately funded scheme -- and that is the correct noun for it -- involves sending an unmanned probe to Mars four years from now. It will determine if the planet's buried ice can be converted to water and fuel, and test equipment and technologies that will be needed to sustain human life.

Of course wanting and doing are not the same thing. Mars One is long on dreams and short on cash.

Then there's the Catch 22 in the plan. It's a doozy. The four unfortunate volunteers will be making a one-way trip, ostensibly to settle Mars so others can follow. There is no way to send them home, and to cut costs none will be designed. They will live out their lives on the planet -- assuming they get there alive and survive the landing, the air-less climate and the radiation.

It's hard to conceive a plan that is more far-fetched. But the Mars One folks claim 200,000 people have signed up to be considered for the first manned flight to Mars, knowing it's a one-way ticket.

It might be closer to launch time when the chosen four have second thoughts about going on a suicide mission just to get a mention in the Guinesss Book of Records -- under the unflattering category reserved for lunatics.


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