Spirit's Martian chronicles

January 06, 2004

THE PURE elation on the scientists' faces was as exhilarating as the source of their joy. Everything that could go right on NASA's latest mission to Mars miraculously did. Late Saturday night, the 400-pound rover Spirit bounced on its airbags, rolled to a stop, raised its camera mast and immediately began sending pictures of the Red Planet back to Earthlings who couldn't get enough of them.

On a day when the second-most-publicized landing was that of a British Airways flight that took three days to get security clearance to fly from London to Washington, the success story from space was especially sweet - a timeout from the war on terrorism to get some perspective on the universe and celebrate a quest that unites humankind.

Not a territorial quest like Ray Bradbury envisioned in his Martian Chronicles of a half-century ago, but a reaching out for knowledge. Could our cold, dry neighbor in the solar system have once been wet and warm? If there was water, was there life?

The implications of such a discovery could be enormous for this planet. But in the meantime, Spirit's successful arrival is a rejuvenating tonic for a space agency badly shaken by the loss of seven astronauts in last year's Columbia disaster and the failure of its last probe to Mars in 1999.

In Maryland, home of the Goddard Space Flight Center, the tangible benefits of space research in developing new technologies are particularly well understood. But there should be no underestimating the intangible rewards as well: the national boost we got in the strife-ridden '60s by landing a man on the moon; the U.S.-Russian partnership fostered by the space station. Spirit's mission might even help smooth over the Iraq-related unpleasantness with Germany, which developed equipment for the rover that will be used to analyze rocks.

During one goofy moment during a press conference yesterday when reporters donned 3-D glasses to appreciate the full depth of color pictures beamed from Mars, NASA engineer Matt Wallace joked that the scene reminded him of a "very bad 1950s B movie." Clearly, there's a parallel with that Red Scare-era of peril at home and fantasizing about the heavens.

The Mars mission promises much more diversion to come as a second rover lands later this month and the two set off on their explorations. Grab some popcorn, relax and enjoy the interlude.

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