Those involved from University of Arizona, the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA should feel tremendous triumph. Americans in general should take pride in an accomplishment with important global implications.
Meanwhile, the little land rovers Opportunity and Spirit, landed on Mars in 2004, just keep chugging along. Several years ago Opportunity temporarily stalled, wheels buried in a sand dune. But engineers on Earth, 100 million miles away, were able to maneuver the vehicle out of the mire.
With relatively little publicity, President Bush has made distant space flight a much higher national priority again, to include a manned mission to Mars. Bush has not yet made a highly dramatic public announcement, along the lines of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 enunciation of a manned mission to the Moon. NASA, however, has been directed to plan for Mars.
Space flight generates far less public excitement than in JFK's time, in part because we are collectively much more cautious. That attitude is well represented by the now-constant concern over safety of the shuttle flights. Also, the media generally devotes much more attention to space problems than successes.
Yet space flight is inherently unpredictable as well as risky. A shuttle flight stays relatively close to Earth, but two crews have been lost. The only casualties of the Moon program were one brave crew incinerated in their capsule while still on Earth.
There are two very good reasons for pursuing the emphasis on Mars after the end of the current Bush administration. First, while the initial space program was fueled by the fixations and fears of the Cold War, this one could be defined by global cooperation. Precedents include the 2005 use of a Russian rocket in Kazakhstan to launch an American satellite. The powerful Soyuz-FG rocket was a product of the old Soviet Union. Even after the collapse of Soviet communism, this and other regime initiatives continued. The two-ton Galaxy 14 satellite was a capitalist tool built by Orbital Satellites Corp. for PanAmSat Holding Corp.
Science always has held an olive branch. During the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower fostered exchanges between scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain, notably through the Pugwash program. In the late 1950s, science cooperation during the International Geophysical Year was leveraged by Ike into demilitarization of Antarctica, the first significant arms agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This time around, Sino-American along with Russian-American relations could be furthered by cooperation to get to Mars. Wider multiculturalism also beckons, especially regarding the European Union and South Korea.
Second, space exploration has driven technological advance, spawning consumer and industrial goods along with research tools. Extreme miniaturization of components for the Moon mission in turn expanded applications for the computer microchip and other high-tech devices.
The personal computer is one of the most important by-products. The small inexpensive computer permits the pervasive information flows that we now take for granted. Whenever you use such a device you are saying hello to JFK, whatever your political persuasion.
You can use the Internet to check out the Mars mission at http://phoenix.lpl.Arizona.edu.
- Scripps Howard News Service