January 6, 2004
NOT AN OPTION:
Spirit: A Star is Born, A Space Agency and A Nation Are Lifted (A.J.S. Rayl, 6 January 2004, Planetary Society)
If a Hollywood screenwriter had crafted the scenes for the last few days of the Spirit Mission Team at JPL as they really happened -- success after success, triumphant image after triumph he or she would be out of a job. In fact, that scriptwriter would never be able to find work in this town again. It's just too good. Everything is just too good -- and every one knows that life doesn't happen like that.
But for a golf-cart-sized rover named Spirit it is happening like that, so far anyway.
Ever since landing last Saturday night, Spirit has performed beautifully, returning the first visions of a new landscape. A global public has, if only for a moment here and there, stopped its Earthly endeavors to tune in or log on and glimpse this new world that is beginning to emerge in the postcards from Mars. The latest is the first color postcard Spirit has sent -- a landscape image taken by the high-resolution camera known as the PanCam that is, simply, the best -- as in highest resolution and brightest detail -- picture ever returned from Mars. Its unveiling drew plenty of applause at the daily news briefing this morning.
The NASA/JPL websites now boast more than 'one billion served,' and even behind the scenes, people are blown away. "My reaction has been one of shock and awe," offered Cornell's Jim Bell, the payload element lead for the PanCam, otherwise known as 'the guy with the cool camera.'
This year's State of the Union is on January 20th, almost exactly a year after we lost the crew of Columbia. The anniversary, these incredible pictures that are being beamed into our living rooms, and our terror fatigue create an ideal cultural moment in which to seize peoples' imaginations and renew the commitment to exploration, hopefully with first a permanent lunar base and then a permanent Mars base. As the President said at the memorial service for the crew:
This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.
Look Up There: The wonderment at the search for life in space is a corrective to all the death and destruction on today's media menu. (WILLIAM SAFIRE, 1/07/04, NY Times)