Lifting our eyes to the heavens will have a very different feel in the days ahead, thanks to the success of the Spirit Rover, NASA’s Mars explorer. The remarkable photos sent back to Earth by the craft, showing the Martian surface with unequaled vividness and immediacy, make the 100 million miles that separate us from the Red Planet feel like a walk down the block. When we look up and see the distant stars in the nights ahead, at least one of them will be familiar terrain. Hey, we’ve been there, at least vicariously.
At first glance, of course, those photos look like nothing more than a bunch of rocks. But look again. The red terrain is that field of mystery that’s been conjured up in a thousand fantasies, now brought to life. The sky above includes a million stars, one of which is our own planet Earth. That’s us up there, floating on a speck in space.
Even before leaving its landing platform and beginning to explore, Rover has turned up a cosmic mystery that has its handlers stumped. On the ground where it landed, photos show the Martian terrain pushed aside not in dust swirls but in squishy lumps that scientists say are unlike anything they’ve ever seen. “It looks like mud, but it can’t be mud,” one researcher said this week. Mud would require water, and there is no water, at least not that they can find. More fantasies: If there’s water, there could be life. If there isn’t water, then there’s something else, something we’ve never dreamed of.
The exploration of space is one of the hardest of all our society’s endeavors to justify by hard logic. The risks are enormous, as the loss of the Columbia last year reminded us. Just last week, as Spirit Rover was preparing to touch down, another Mars probe, the British-built Beagle, was lost on contact at a cost of $90 million.
And yet, somehow, there are few projects that speak more readily or directly to the imagination and soul of the ordinary citizen. We tell ourselves that we are expanding our technological capabilities to improve life down here. We tell ourselves we’re searching for signs of life out there. We seek military advantage, or simply to conquer our environment.
But the truth is that we press on because we need to know ourselves. Humankind has sought for millennia to reach out to the infinite and embrace it, to know the unknowable and understand how we fit into its vastness. That, for most of us, is the real mission in space: the pursuit of wonder.