Topic: Curiosity Mars rover mission
Weekly column by Daniel Kalder
Space: it’s not very interesting, is it? Well, alright, I suppose that if you like rocks, and dust, and gas burning in a void, it’s absolutely fascinating. But I must confess that ever since I discovered aged 8 that there are neither aliens nor robots nor warring space empires out there I’ve found it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the cosmos.
Well, not completely. I appreciate it as a symbol of death, cold, infinity and existential emptiness; and I confess I have a soft spot for the early days of space exploration. In the 50s and 60s there was a genuine spirit of discovery, and so all those “firsts” fascinate me – from Gagarin’s first orbit, to Leonov’s first space walk, to Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Brave men, plus a few sacrificial dogs and monkeys, took great risks to see just what was out there.
But it’s not only the big names that interest me. I’m even more drawn to the pathos of those who were “second”. For instance, German Titov’s orbit of the earth was much longer and more grueling than Gagarin’s but nobody cares very much. And Buzz Aldrin’s experience as the second man on the moon left him completely bewildered as to what to do next. He took to drink, got divorced, and sold Cadillacs at a showroom in Beverley Hills before sobering up. Even then, he still makes weird choices: two years ago he hosted an evening of WWE wrestling in Toronto, for instance.
What fascinates me about these early stories is their human aspect – the drama, the excitement, the risk of death. As for what the cosmonauts and astronauts actually found out there, well…. we knew most of it already. So the moon is a big rock with craters and a lot of dust on it? Check. So space is empty and cold and if you step outside you float about? Uh-huh, got it.
Meanwhile, since all those initial breakthroughs, well, we haven’t done very much, have we? Yes, we’ve put up a lot of satellites that are very helpful for watching TV and finding your way around a strange town, but in terms of exploration… Valeri Polyakov’s epic 437 day stint inside the rusty Mir space station is impressive as a feat of human endurance, but aside from that, you have to really love rocks and gas to take much interest.
And that, in turn, brings me to the current NASA Curiosity rover mission on Mars. For those of you who haven’t been paying much attention, Curiosity is a $2.5 billion radio-controlled car with a camcorder attached to the top, which also has a scooping claw of the sort kids play with in Wal-Mart to try and pick up soft toys from the bottom of a gift bin. It can also shoot X-rays at rocks. OK – it’s a bit better than that, but you get the general idea.
Anyway, Curiosity is currently moving very slowly around the Gale crater where it touched down on August 5: looking at rocks, searching for signs of water and – just maybe – alien life. Now when we say alien life, we’re not talking about HG Wells’ evil squids inside giant metal tripods, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ extravagantly busty naked babes, or even Marvin, the little guy in the Roman helmet with the brush on top from Warner Bros. cartoons. No. We’re talking about some (hypothetical) old, dead microbes.
Apparently these old dead microbes are interesting, because if Curiosity finds some, then that will prove there are old dead microbes on Mars. This in turn would suggest that there may be old dead microbes elsewhere, though I suppose we’d have to send another radio controlled car further into space just to be sure. Whoop-de-doo!
This week, meanwhile, NASA announced Curiosity’s latest finding: it’s a bit warmer on Mars than expected. No, really, currently it’s about 6 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. “That we are seeing temperatures this warm already during the day is a surprise and very interesting," said Felipe Gómez, of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid. Speak for yourself buddy. According to Gomez this means Mars may be more habitable than we thought, although since you’d still float away and suffocate if you set foot on the planet without a multi-million dollar space suit on, the ‘habitable” point is moot.
Each to his own, I suppose. Apparently Americans spent $3 billion on homeopathic medicine in 2007, so Curiosity is not that expensive, really, especially as it will be looking at rocks for nine years (if it doesn’t break down first.) But I can’t help thinking that if you really feel lonely in the universe and have an unbearable existential itch that needs scratching then old dead microbes make for poor dinner companions. Religion is so much cheaper, and not only that, but you get to look forward to spending eternity in the company of a benevolent, omniscient Deity. Plus, you can sing songs with your friends on weekends.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.
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- GarryBApathy06:04, 06/10/2012I can appreciate your apathy.
I am not really interested in gardening or having dogs as pets and I am not really interested in efforts expended in either direction... that is reading about it or watching it on TV.
The thing is that the Human race has only one stable and relatively safe environment to exist within, and that environment is abundant with air and water and food sources.
Human beings are destructive wasteful things yet the space and capacity of this planet is limited.
I am not suggesting moving to a new planet is a solution because there simply aren't enough suitable nearby planets that meet our current very strict requirements.
So far the recipe is abundant water, air and food, add a few humans that rapidly multiply till all that water and food is contaminated and poisonous and when the food runs out we turn on each other.
Sending people to Mars isn't about exploring the way an adventurous youth might go backpacking in Europe... there are no museums, or legal sources of illegal drugs on Mars.
It is mostly about finding if we are alone in this universe. Based on its size you can probably say we are not alone, but actually finding evidence would have a pretty important impact on the way we live and do things.
The point I am trying to make is that if we don't learn to live more efficiently then we are going to destroy the only place in the universe where we can actually live.
By sending men to Mars we have to develop new technologies and strategies for living in environments where all the things we need are not only not abundant, but might perhaps be totally absent.
Sustainable living technologies and processes that we develop for use in space could easily be very applicable to trying to survive on Earth in a few hundred years time.
Still think it is money wasted?
I rather suspect that if anything happened to society I might suddenly develop an interest in gardening too.
The thing is that the likelihood of earth being hit by a large object from space is pretty much 1. It is pretty much certain that a large lump of something will crash into the earth at least once before the sun swallows us up in about 4 billion years time.
When that happens our chances of survival will be much greater if there are bases on the moon and mars and even a few in orbit around venus.