Sci-fi dreams clash with rover reality

January 21, 2004|By Tom Jehn

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Am I the only one unimpressed by the NASA robot Spirit?

I know it's something of a miracle that it traveled 300 million miles, survived its descent through the Martian atmosphere and now roves on the planet's inhospitable surface. But you have to remember, the news that Spirit is lumbering 65 feet a day isn't much of a match for the stunning fantasies of technological wizardry that sci-fi movies have dazzled us with for decades.

Of course, I know NASA is light years away from spacecraft moving at "warp drive" and from boasting a range of on-board services, such as a holodeck lounge serving hologram drinks - just as kids know that when they play Nintendo, their gigantic intergalactic fighters with cloaking shields aren't actually rolling off the assembly lines at Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Nevertheless, at some level, an entire generation watching images of Spirit must feel disappointed by its gawky aesthetic and by, well, its relatively puny achievements.

Weaned on Star Wars and Star Trek, we think in terms of traveling to distant galaxies where we encounter highly intelligent species that have left behind our clunky metal and plastic for tasteful organic fabrics.

We don't fantasize about visiting the dusty old planet next-door. And even if we did make such a modest trip, we wouldn't get there in a dinky craft that's about as big as a riding lawn mower and has to land in a cradle of balloons that look like a bunch of grapes. We'd travel in comfort, unencumbered by bulbous space suits, and we'd look like orchestral conductors as we gracefully sweep our hands over more of those holograms. We'd make wisecracks about how the tractor beam is acting up again.

Our sci-fi fantasies - indeed, all of our hi-tech fantasies - are about making human limitations invisible.

I know the NASA engineers worked long nights on the rover, but couldn't they have at least removed the aluminum foil?

Tom Jehn is head preceptor in expository writing at Harvard University.

Columnist Cal Thomas will return Jan. 28.

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