25 January 2007

Window of Opportunity

The Mars Rover "Opportunity" landed on the Red Planet three years ago today.

Astonishingly, it is still working, still trundling around, and still sending back amazing images and new information. (despite falling into a hole, and succesfully getting out again)

It does rather beg the question of what the actual point would be of George W Bush's plan to send a manned mission to Mars.

I'm old enough to remember the Apollo flights, and I supported them then, despite the collosal cost, and the strong feelings at the time that the money could be better spent (remember Gil Scott Heron's "Whitey's on the Moon"?)

But at that time, those brave astronauts were by far the most sophisticated pieces of equipment on those flights. Sent to the moon in a leaky tin can, with computing power less than that of a pocket calculator, and practically held together with elastic bands.

"Opportunity" has proven that to put human beings through the masochistic extremes of a long-haul flight to Mars and back, would not only be hugely costly, but also completely unneccessary.

As a child weened on "2001" and Gerry Anderson, I would have loved the swashbuckling adventure of a Mars mission, and yes it still holds a huge romantic power for me. But, as skeptics, I think it's our duty this time to oppose a manned mission as pure and silly vanity, and scientifically misplaced.

With Voyager 1 9.3 billion miles from the Sun (and apparently still sending faint signals), and Opportunity still put-putting about the Martian surface, it's time to side with Scott Heron and proclaim manned space flight to be irrational.



Anonymous Ray Bond said...

So your view is that the human race should never attempt to leave its home planet, should lock its own prison door, and spend the rest of its existence on this single, minuscule speck of dust. While all about it the universe beckons. Do you not find this an utterly depressing prospect? Apparently not...

Such a view is akin to a teenager never venturing beyond his bedroom, experiencing the world via the proxy of his computer screen; a pathetic, impoverished condition.

It is not a view that Carl Sagan would share. Are you seriously saying he was irrational? As the back cover of Pale Blue Dot states: "The exploration and eventual settlement of other worlds is neither a fantasy nor a luxury... but rather a necessary condition for the survival of the human race."

It is a view echoed by, among others, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies, and Arthur C. Clarke. In their opinions - I hope I'm not misrepresenting them - it would be irrational NOT to attempt to expand humanity's presence beyond a single planet.

For if we remain rooted to this one small world we will surely die. From nuclear war. From pandemic. From an unfortunate asteroid. Or from sheer, bloody, mind-numbing boredom.

10:50 pm  
Blogger Little Atoms said...

Ray, with respect, you completely misread my post. I'm against manned spaceflight at the moment, because it's dangerous, hugely expensive and inefficient. Human beings make bad spacemen compared to robots.

If we're seriously talking about colonising other worlds (and we'd have to find a suitable place first) then we're talking about a date so far into the future that one would hope we'd have mastered such problems as suspended animation, "terra-forming" and maybe even the neccesary "warp speed" that would actually make insterstella exploration practical. In which case I would have no problem with manned flight, becuase I'd assume we technologically advanced to actually look after the astronauts.

But sending a few blokes in a tin can to post the stars and stripes on Mars, is plain daft. Not to mention "mind numbingly boring" for the poor muscle-atrophying astronauts who get to go.

Actually I don't find the prospect of remaining here (Earth) that depressing, I rather like the old place, and I still feel science could be more usefully applied to save this one, before we jump ship for a new one.

Best wishes


3:51 pm  
Anonymous Ray Bond said...

Okay, fair points. I'm relieved that your arguments are based on pragmatism rather than ideology (eg. 'Bush wants us to explore space. But Bush is a right-wing God-fearing idiot. Therefore space exploration is garbage'. Okay, Bush IS an idiot, but even idiots occasionally get things right...!)

If we're ever going to do this thing then someone has to take the first steps, however small and faltering those steps might be. If we are constantly waiting for 'suspended animation' or 'warp drives' we'll wait forever. The new techniques and technologies required to colonise other worlds need to be developed, and the best way to do that is to build and test and learn. In space. On the Moon. Simulations (of both the computer and Arizona desert kinds) will only take you so far. You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs - eventually we'll have to cut metal, spend money, and risk lives. And muscle-atrophying or not, I'm pretty sure there'd be no shortage of volunteers.

I agree with you about sending the Stars & Stripes to Mars, if that was all the mission consisted of. If I'd known at the time that the Apollo missions would lead to... well, nothing much, I'd probably have been against them too. I thought we were going to the Moon to stay. We didn't. As someone once said, we went to the Moon, pissed on it, and came home. I certainly don't want to see the same thing happen with Mars.

9:30 pm  

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