“No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No-one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes; and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.”
This was my first introduction to the planet Mars, in the last years of the 1970’s. My father played Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds over and over, conjuring up images of a distant world populated by terrifying creatures plotting the destruction of mankind. I had many nightmares that I would wake up surrounded by those slithering Martians.
Although Richard Burton’s melodic voice captured the fear of the unknown, by that stage much was known about Mars. The flybys of the late 1960s and the Viking landers in 1975 finally put away the idea of alien civilization on Mars. Yet we still are enthralled by the idea that life may have existed there in the distant past or may still exist underneath the surface.
Since the 1970s, there have been many further missions to Mars that have captured our imagination. Some were spectacular successes that reminded us all why we should be exploring our universe and the sheer joy of discovery. Others were catastrophic failures that heaped derision and scorn upon the whole enterprise.
Nevertheless, the recent unprecedented successes of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers (still functioning after three and a half years on Mars, even though they were designed to last only 90 days), have raised our expectations that we are finally getting the knowledge and expertise to explore Mars.
Next month, NASA will launch another lander, called Phoenix, to the red planet, this time looking at its arctic ice. There is much to learn there, including if the water contains traces of life. One of the most interesting mission objectives is to assess if the region can be habitable. This is the kind of information that we will need to gather in advance of sending astronauts and establishing colonies.
I hope that this new journey to Mars will add to the general interest in space exploration. We need inspirational events to encourage our children to take an interest in science and engineering and for some of them to carve out careers in the space industry. Realistically, this isn’t going to happen with this mission. The print media will cover the launch and it may get some exposure on television. From my own perspective, I wasn’t aware of this mission until relatively recently. If my experience is anything to go by, then the vast majority of people will never hear about it unless something goes wrong or Phoenix actually finds life in the frozen soil.
Given the extraordinary efforts of the scientists and engineers involved in creating both the lander itself and its payload of interesting experiments, it is frustrating that more is not made of this opportunity to engage with the public. Although there are three European experiments on board, this is not an ESA-NASA joint mission. As a result, there is no general engagement with the European public about this mission by ESA.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to the scientific community in Europe that experiments can be included in a NASA mission. These teams have had to compete against the best in the world to be selected. This should certainly be used to encourage interest and opportunity.
When I look through my telescope at Mars, I see a small distant orange ball that seems to be waiting patiently for visitors. Until the day that people are walking on the surface, we will have to send our surrogate machines to do the work. May they enlighten us, inspire us and chase away those childish nightmares.
Stephen Oman is a member of the European public and is interested in space exploration. He is an advocate of greater engagement between the scientific community and the general public. He is also a moderator of an online discussion group, Europe In Space , dedicated to everyone interested in debating European space explorations.
He lives in Dublin, Ireland, and works in the software industry.