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Why Mars—and Curiosity—Matter Especially as NASA Faces Budget Cuts

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"Why Mars—and Curiosity—Matter Especially as NASA Faces Budget Cuts"

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The amazing men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration landed the Curiosity rover on Mars last night. But the piece of writing that perhaps best encapsulates the wild joy at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and the meaning of their accomplishment, was published almost 20 years before, on January 1, 1993. I hope everyone will forgive me quoting Kim Stanley Robinson’s introduction to Red Mars, the first of his masterful trilogy about the colonization of the Red Planet, at length here, because it’s the most powerful meditation on the meaning of Mars that I know, and it’s so strikingly applicable here (and make it worth it by going out and buying the book if my repeated proselytization for it hasn’t convinced you already). Robinson wrote:

Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses—except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had.

Now everybody knows the history of Mars in the human mind: how for all the generations of prehistory it was one of the chief lights in the sky, because of its redness and fluctuating intensity, and the way it stalled in its wandering course through the stars, and sometimes even reversed direction. It seemed to be saying something with all that. So perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a peculiar weight on the tongue—Nirgal, Mangala, Auqakuh, Harmakhis—they sound as if they were even older than the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the Ice Age or before. Yes, for thousands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and its color made it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the heart.

Then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and shrinking as the long seasons passed. No improvement in the technology of the telescope ever gave us much more than that; but the best Earthbound images gave Lowell enough blurs to inspire a story, the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert.

It was a great story. But then Mariner and Viking sent back their photos, and everything changed. Our knowledge of Mars expanded by magnitudes, we literally knew millions of times more about this planet than we had before. And there before us flew a new world, a world unsuspected.

It seemed, however, to be a world without life. People searched for signs of past or present Martian life, anything from microbes to the doomed canal-builders, or even alien visitors. As you know, no evidence for any of these has ever been found. And so stories have naturally blossomed to fill the gap, just as in Lowell’s time, or in Homer’s, or in the caves or on the savannah—stories of microfossils wrecked by our bio-organisms, of ruins found in dust storms and then lost forever, of Big Man and all his adventures, of the elusive little red people, always glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. And all of these tales are told in an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to life. Because we are still those animals who survived the Ice Age, and looked up at the night sky in wonder, and told stories. And Mars has never ceased to be what it was to us from our very beginning—a great sign, a great symbol, a great power.

In Robinson’s vision, we sent the first colonizing mission to Mars in 2026. President Obama’s FY 2013 budget proposes cutting NASA’s planetary science budget from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion and ending the U.S. partnership with the E.U. to send probes to Mars on two planned missions in 2016 and 2018—this year, the Jet Propulsion Lab’s open house was marked by a bake sale to call attention to the proposed cuts. What the scientists at JPL did last night was a critical part of our future in space not simply because they did something extremely difficult that will advance our understanding of the planet that’s fascinated so many of us so deeply and for so long, but because they helped keep the dream alive at all, reminding of what it’s like to watch the future arrive, and how cheap it is to purchase in comparison to what we spend to maintain conflicts and policies that mire us in the past.

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