Everyone's in shock that NASA's much-hyped Mars program has turned into a Demolition Derby. NASA's new slogan: Boldly Making Craters Where No Craters Had Been Before.
This brings back fond memories of the early years of the space program, when spacecraft were allowed to smash into the moon without apology. Brakes hadn't been invented. The Ranger probes would rocket toward the moon, take pictures as they got closer, and then crash into the surface without even slowing down. Simple, brutal and fun: The glory days.
Children instinctively understand that this is how technology is supposed to work. They know that there is nothing better than to assemble an electric race-car set, mash the accelerators and watch the cars zoom about one-quarter of the way around the race track before wiping out. It happens every time. Rarely does a car go more than about four feet before flipping off the track and across the rug and under the couch.
But then eventually it works, you'll have an actual race. The wipe-outs are necessary to the subsequent success. Kids know: Moments of kinetic beauty always require a prolonged flirtation with total destruction.
NASA is now also pondering its sudden affinity for smashing things up. What's going on here? Let's look again at the basic plan of the latest Mars mission. The Mars Polar Lander was supposed to go on a 400-million-mile, 11-month journey through a hostile medium where the temperature is just barely above Absolute Zero. Then it was supposed to enter the unpredictable atmosphere of the planet Mars, slow down, and softly land on an unseen polar terrain. There would be no one guiding it, no eyeballs scouting for craters or cliffs or giant boulders. The engineers simply trusted it to do the right thing.
Was that asking too much? Come on, it's not like they required the spacecraft to bake a souffle at the same time!
(Alien News Update: You know this is all connected to the Face on Mars, right? You really think those probes crashed? They're taking pictures RIGHT NOW. This is what the government does: It fakes its incompetence. It only pretends to be the kind of government that confuses Metric and English units. Because it doesn't want anyone to know the scary truth about the Martians. This theory brought to you by people who distrust the government completely but believe it capable of fantastic conspiracies.)
NASA is scrambling to figure out why it's stuck in Failure Mode. The fellow who's in charge of solar system exploration, Carl Pilcher, said on CBS this morning that the faster-better-cheaper philosophy of the space agency in recent years may have gone too far. Expect the NASA folks to ask for more money for these programs. That's the usual bureaucratic response. Send more dollars.
But here's a thought: When you go to Mars, bad things happen. Not always. But often enough such that it shouldn't shock anyone. Just a few short years ago the Mars Observer, a billion-dollar spacecraft, went kablooey just as it neared Mars. The Russians tried repeatedly to send spacecraft there and every one of them failed to make it.
I think it's amazing that we have the technology and knowledge to attempt something as ambitious as the robotic exploration of other worlds. A hundred years ago the astronomer Percival Lowell was loudly proclaiming that Mars was covered with canals built by an intelligent civilizations. Lowell said the Martians were surely more advanced than we are, because their civil engineering projects were built on a global scale.
You can still see the canals through a telescope if you squint really hard, particularly after about the fifth beer.
There are no doubt those for whom this latest disaster is oddly satisfying. Some people prefer the unknown to the known. This morning I was skimming through one of my favorite books, which I love for its title alone: Everything You Know is Wrong.
It's by a certain Lloyd Pye. He argues that our forests and mountains are inhabited by huge, hairy "hominoids," creatures that are 7 to 9 feet tall, commonly referred to as Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman.
Some creatures in Russia, he writes, may actually be Neanderthals, who never went extinct. (This DOES potentially solve the mystery of the existence of Pat Buchanan.)
A critical point for Pye is that most of the planet has never been carefully foot-surveyed.
"Our vaunted `mastery' extendes to only a bit more than one-third of Earth's landmass. Another third is too frozen or too parched to be of much use to anybody. And the last third clearly and without question belongs to the hominoids."
Forget Mars: We don't even know our own world!
If we can't even land a probe on the surface of Mars . . . how can we rule out the existence of Bigfoot here on Earth?
See, it's all logical, almost.
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