Monday, August 31, 2009

A Dream of Mars

In 2008, thousands of people fell in love with a robot, far from its home, out in the cold of space. No, not Wall-E: the Mars Explorer, nicknamed “Phoenix.” Aside from its obvious purposes of space exploration and study, the Mars Explorer was also a new step for NASA when it became one of the most followed accounts on Twitter. In early November, the Explorer ceased communicating with Earth, but not before creating a massive following, and capturing the hearts of thousands. Some of the last few Tweets from the Explorer(written by Veronica McGregor of Jet Propulsion Laboratory) were very poignant:

I should stay well-preserved in this cold. I'll be humankind's monument here for centuries, eons, until future explorers come for me ;-) 1:57 AM Oct 30th, 2008 from web

Take care of that beautiful blue marble out there in space, our home planet. I’ll be keeping an eye from here. Space exploration FTW! 12:55 PM Oct 30th, 2008 from web

Many of the Explorer’s followers on Twitter expressed amazement that they were getting so emotional over a robot, especially when everyone knew the messages were coming from JPL, not the surface of Mars. Why get worked up over a machine that was slowly shutting down?

It wasn’t the machine itself that we loved: the metals, the mechanisms, the scientific equipment. It was the human spirit that had sent it there, so many miles from our home, not for profit or war or necessity, but simply because there was a chance to discover something we’d never known before. So many people had dreamed, had planned, had worked to put that bit of metal on that frozen surface, and the light of the human spirit shone as bright as any star. The freezing chill of Martian winter may have caused the machine to shut down, but the spirit it embodies is still there, as strong as ever, burning bright with curiosity, determination, and optimism.

In January, I visited Jet Propulsions Lab, and got to meet many of the people behind the Mars missions; many of them were kind enough to sign my copy of The Martian Chronicles. And it hit me. The dream still lives on. Would we be so excited to discover Martian ice if we had never read about Martian canals full of wine? Would we have been so excited to see the cold red dust of the surface if we had not walked the streets of its cities with Dejah Thoris and John Carter? The dream isn’t about finding aliens, or seeing ancient Martian cities, or any of the specifics from the books and stories. The dream is the Red Planet itself, that bright shining dot in the night sky, the cold barren world of shifting sands and sublimating ice. The dream doesn’t die with the discovery of fact; the dream is the power behind that discovery.

Ray Bradbury, that dreamer of Mars, said “We're always asking, ‘What are we doing here on earth?’ We are the audience. There's no use having a universe, a cosmology, if you don't have witnesses. We are the witnesses to the miracle. We are put here by creation, by God, by the cosmos, whatever name you want to give it. We're here to be the audience to the magnificent. It is our job to celebrate.”

We have sent machines hurtling through millions of miles of space to discover the face of Mars. We have seen the red earth. We have touched the ice below the surface. We are the audience to the magnificent, and we will celebrate.


In honor of the Mars Phoenix, now silent in the Martian winter.

The frigid wind whipped the icy sand against her helmet as she rounded the small rock outcropping. She staggered for a moment before regaining her balance and pushed forward. Her communicator crackled.
“Eagle1, you ok out there?”
She activated the transmitter, and responded.
“Everything’s fine out here, Eagle2. Just a few more metres.”
“Better hurry. They’re talking about calling you back. They don’t know if you’ll be able to stay in contact once you get there.”
“The only way they’re getting me to come back is to come after me themselves.”
The signal crackled, and faded. She assumed Williams had signed off, and pressed forward.

A glint sparkled momentarily through the dust. She squinted, and adjusted the polarization of her visor. The Martian landscape was still bare here near the poles: no-one had yet found it profitable to construct a dome this far north. Her communicator crackled again.
“Eagle1, report.”
“Eagle2, I think I’ve found the site. Gotta get closer to check.”
“Eagle1, you have been ordered to return to your vehicle and begin the return to base.”
“With all due respect, Eagle2, screw you.”
“Why is this *crackle* important to you? It’s a beatup piece of junk. Went 90 days, then a few more 2 years later, then silence. Even if you find it, it’s of no use to us. *crackle* obsolete 75 years ago.”

She could now see a small structure half buried in dust and ice. The distant sun glinted sharply off several of its surfaces. Though her suit was fully heated, she felt a chill go down her spine.

“Eagle2, my grandmother was one of the people who used the original primitive network. She loved it. She had friends all over the world. She followed the progress of this one. She used to tell me stories, about how she would get excited to see what this machine was doing each day, to look at the pictures it sent from hundreds of millions of miles away. When she told about how it was settling in to freeze in 2008, and the messages that were posted about it…she still got tears in her eyes. It meant something to her.”

A long silence settled in, and she pushed her way the last few feet. Reaching out a hand, she brushed a bit of dust from the surface, and felt an electric thrill as her gloved fingers came in contact with the ancient artifact.

“*crackle* over a machine?!”
She smiled, as she rested a hand on the cold, ancient metal. “No. It wasn’t the machine. She said the machine was only the place in which the human spirit, human curiousity, and human endeavor dwelt. Here they were, just learning to reach out to each other, but they still wanted the stars. Think of the time and learning and brilliance it took to put this here. And they flung it out into the stars, knowing it would cease, knowing it would die alone on a distant planet…and they did it anyway.”

With a click, she silenced the communicator. She would deal with Base in a minute. She caressed the metal, and smiled.

“We came back for you. “

The wind whistled.