SHUTTLE COLUMBIA (yawn) has been in space for a week (ho-hum), its crew conducting experiments that require it to set (ahem) 144 small fires in sealed chambers. As important as Columbia's mission may be -- observing flames in weightlessness and testing the properties of metallic glass -- few people are paying much attention.
The spacecraft Pathfinder and its roving robotic probe, Sojourner, have provided such spectacular views of the Red Planet's surface that everything else seems inconsequential. The color images of Mars beamed back to this planet have been astounding in their clarity.
Pathfinder's pictures of Mars' rock-strewn surface and mountains in the distance are giving people a better sense of what another world looks like. In comparison, photographs that astronauts took of our moon nearly 30 years ago seem surreal. Using Pathfinder's camera as their eyes, scientists wearing 3-D goggles can actually see Mars as if they were on the planet.
The experts are just as animated about what they cannot see. No water is in sight, but the landscape, compared by some to eastern Washington state, appears the result of water erosion. There may be oceans of frozen water buried beneath Mars' surface or anchored at its northern polar cap. And scientists believe that where there is water, there is -- or was -- life.
The slower Mars Global Observer, which actually left Earth before Pathfinder, will arrive in September for two years of Mars study from orbit. Four more robot missions are to occur by 2005. NASA has created a credible model for space exploration that provides great knowledge and generates widespread public support without risking human lives.
Pub Date: 7/08/97