Back to Mars—again. This season's two Mars missions have already seen the embarrassing smashup of an orbiter, sent off course by an error mistaking yards for meters. That blunder will ring in our memories, cited endlessly as classic hubris from all-powerful NASA.
But the landing on December 3 will be the right stuff indeed — the most difficult ever attempted on the Red Planet. The Martian south pole is deadly cold and rugged.
If it survives, we will hear the winds of another world for the first time. Our robot lander will dig for water. Then another two years will pass before another team of two craft probes our Earthlike neighbor.
What next? After dual exploratory expeditions in 2001, 2003 and 2005, NASA plans to return a small soil sample to Earth around 2007. After that, a huge question yawns: should humans go next?
The scientific need is already clear. In the last decade biologists have uncovered evidence that Earth's earliest life may well have evolved not in warm lagoons, but in the dark ocean depths, near volcanic vents. Or perhaps it began even lower, inside rocks safe from meteors bombarding the early Earth.
The same may well have happened on Mars, and even sooner than here, since that smaller red planet cooled off faster. If so, life there would have enjoyed a brief season of warm and wet, perhaps several hundred million years, before the planet cooled and its atmosphere bled away into space. We see evidence of this era on the Martian face today—carved river valleys, canyons, a vast flat plain that may have been an ocean bed.
Many biologists believe life, if it began, would have migrated from the increasingly hostile surface to the warmer subsurface world. Primitive life dwells deep in our Earth today, using gases like hydrogen sulfide to prosper, rather than oxygen.
Did life arise on Mars? Is it still there? These are some of the biggest questions we could answer in the next century, scientific riddles everyone understands. The public assumes we're going to go to Mars eventually, and-they're already fascinated. Just watch the reaction to this newest landing, and to the two big feature films coming next summer.
Going to Mars could be a defining moment in the 21st Century, as Apollo was for the 20th—a challenge worthy of us. It will be hard, tough, dangerous, thrilling. Our most basic and meaningful questions about life there simply cannot be answered by robots. To discover subsurface fossils—or living organisms—demands that astronauts descend into ancient volcanic vents. No machine can do this, or even drill effectively to the depths required.
It would cost about $50 billion — less than four years of NASA budgets. But NASA seems scared of so risky a mission. Already voices are calling instead for some big manned mission after the Space Station gets built, such as assembling a large telescope out by the moon. Others say we should wait a generation or two, when we can afford it and the technology will be better.
All these dodge the grandeur of our opportunity. We do not need make-work projects in space, when there are real, epochal tasks at hand. If we do not challenge our spacefaring teams, we will lose knowledge, not gain it. And nobody knows if budgets 30 years from now will allow space missions at all.
One thing is sure—we got to the moon because we had a clear goal, coming soon enough to animate a generation. We now spend over $13 billion each year on a space program that is literally going around in circles—endlessly skating along in low orbits, never venturing far enough to capture the public imagination with new sights, fresh vistas.
Mars within one generation, 20 years, certainly lies within our grasp. With advanced communications, we can all go along, following explorers every day, on TV and even the internet, as they search the canyons of a new world for signs of ancient life.
Committing the U.S. to this goal early in the next administration could set the stage for a daring leap into the solar system. The mission would not be to plant flags and rush home, but instead to stay for at least a year, to settle deep scientific questions with immense philosophical, and even theological, overtones. How easily does life start on Earthlike worlds? Are we rare in the cosmos? Was our Creation unique?
Finding the answers could mark our time and set the stage for even greater dramas.