BY Laurie Palmer in Profiles | 11 NOV 97
Featured in
Issue 37

Crisis and Utopia Revisited

Surfing for images of Mars

BY Laurie Palmer in Profiles | 11 NOV 97

Pictures of Mars poured excruciatingly slowly onto the computer screen on July 4 this year as I ate breakfast with my brother's family in rural Vermont. I wouldn't have bothered to queue up with the estimated 25 million others hitting the NASA site but we did it for my nephews - one of whom is the same age I was in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed and Neil Armstrong walked. I don't remember the moonwalk - traumatic familial events took priority over things happening far away, and not long after, my political perspective developed, like many others in the US, in strong opposition to the space programme. I paid no attention to Mars 1-4 (1962-71), Mariner 4-9 (1964-72), Viking 1 and 2 (1975-76), to the launch of MIR (1986), or to any of the shuttle missions of the 80s except the one that blew up. But the new Mars pictures downloaded this Independence day were afforded a different reception - suddenly space exploration seemed exciting.

For one thing, it is no longer an issue that all that money would be better spent on social programmes, since there are no longer any social programmes in the US to benefit. For another, NASA has re-surfaced in public consciousness with a whole different spin, emphasising budget-cutting, efficiency and results. This PR package - and the seemingly trouble-free execution of the Pathfinder mission so far - contrasts positively with the ongoing publicity around the Russian space station MIR, and has helped establish the American people's confidence in their own country's technology. Public enthusiasm for the space programme is so high that the bad news gets overlooked - the disturbing fact, for instance, that the Cassini mission to Saturn launched in October carries a plutonium fuel cargo with the potential to slowly kill everyone on this planet should it mistakenly get dispersed in our atmosphere. (NASA sets the odds against plutonium release at 357 to 1.) If the Gulf War TV simulcasts from the eye of a missile drew heated criticism of the Pentagon, pixellated website images and videos from the floor of Ares Vallis have ignited fascination and desire, and given NASA an uncharacteristic face of accessibility - just what it needed to garner broad-based support.

It seems that website access really is the key. The accomplishments of MIR since it was launched in 1986 - maintaining a human-inhabited space station continuously for 11 years - is arguably more ambitious than Pathfinder's trip to Mars, but it hardly received any attention until things began to go wrong. In contrast, Pathfinder has no humans aboard, and once landed has only to send news back - with the help of its accordion-folded, microwave cooker, Sojourner - for as long as communications systems last. Other than Sojourner's independent travelling, the Pathfinder mission does not seem all that different from the two Viking landings on Mars 21 years ago. Those landings, in the Plains of Crisis and Utopia, respectively, were explicitly targeted to look for evidence of life. But while they sent back lots of pictures and executed tests of soil and air, the results were - in light of their momentous goal - disappointing. Rather than speculating whether there is life on Mars now, Pathfinder's explorations are framed more decisively, within the larger project of putting life on Mars in the future - the plan is to send humans in ten to fifteen years.

The excitement generated by the website is predominantly due to its sense of immediacy. This feeling comes partly from the image's slowness of reception and partly from its attractively approximate resolution. We see the information gaps in the image filled with black squares, or even opaque green swipes, and these gaps suggest that the image is real because it is partial. Martian Sunset is a smokey orange square, and Carbon Dioxide Clouds is an equally abstract image, streaked and bluish; neither give us anything much beyond a bottomless desire to see more. The communal patriotism on Indepen-dence day (how could it not have been part of the plan?) and the sense of being indoors with family, but also together with millions (150 million hits in the first week of the Mars landing) added to the warm glow.

On a personal front, I met one of Sojourner's ancestors here on earth. I used to see it early every morning behind the sculpture studio at Carnegie Mellon University as I arrived for work. It would be practising walking over Martian rocks, which in Pittsburgh were large, asymmetrically-shaped cardboard boxes. A posse of very young engineers sat perched on the fence, watching rover walk. They seemed excessively proud and excited about what looked to me like a clumsy performance. I am not sure that I understood that this rover (a much bigger version than Sojourner - at least 12 feet tall) was responding independently to its environment rather than being run by remote control. Nor did I know that the driver-free camouflaged trucks that rode around campus were manoeuvring curves and pedestrians by a built in camera and automated response system. On Mars, the rover has to make independent decisions about walking, or rolling, because the time that light takes to travel 352 million kilometres back to earth would interfere with effective long-distance piloting. But responsive robotic technologies may have applications on earth too: the camouflaged trucks were prototypes for civilian cars that pilot themselves. Thus public reception of the space programme might be changing not only because NASA has chosen to focus on accessibility via the Internet and language (using cartoon language in preference over Latin for naming Martian geology), but also because we have already begun to encounter, understand and incorporate space technologies into our daily lives on a regular basis. Space travel no longer seems weird, or even romantic, but a lot more real - or anyway, familiar.