Americans count on presence of rocks on the Red Planet

February 08, 2004|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune


I don't mean PERSONALLY, of course. I, for one, am unable to go to Mars because of a dental appointment. But should humans, in general, go to Mars?

As you know, the idea of a Mars mission was proposed recently by President George "W" Bush. What happened was, one evening he and his staff were sitting around the Oval Office, trying to think of something for the nation to do, and they got to looking out the window at the vastness of the night sky, and the president suddenly said: "Hey, we should go to ... to ... whaddyacallit!"

The president actually was thinking of a Chinese restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue, but before he could clarify this, his staff had worked out this whole big Mars mission. So he figured, what the hey.

This is not a new dream. As long as humanity has been human, it has looked toward the heavens and dreamed that some day, some way, there would be giant federal contracts involved. And there has always been a particular fascination with Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, unless we count Marlon Brando.

Mars -- sometimes called "The Red Planet," because it appears, to the naked eye, to be orange -- gets its name from the ancient Greek or Roman name "Mars," meaning "Mars." The planet has long captured the popular imagination, because for many years, people believed that Martians might live there, based on the fact that there are canals, which suggests the presence of boats, and, in the words of the late Carl Sagan: "If there are boats, then there would have to be somebody to fix them."

In 1938, Orson Welles did a radio "news" broadcast, based on "The War of the Worlds", about invading Martians landing in the town of Grovers Mill, N.J. The broadcast created a nationwide panic, although it was of course a hoax: The Martians actually landed in Philadelphia, where many still reside, as evidenced by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter.

Today we are pretty sure that nobody lives on Mars, at least not year-round. We base this on the fact that NASA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars sending unmanned probes up there, and they have sent back thousands of pictures, all of them showing: rocks. Granted, there was one picture where, if you magnified the background, you could just make out a sign that said "PALM SPRINGS 47 MILES." But a NASA spokesperson quickly explained that this was "an optical illusion, caused by, um, hydrogen."

As I write these words, we have yet another probe scooting around on Mars, and it has been sending back exquisitely detailed photographs of: rocks. At this point, I, for one, am willing to stipulate that Mars is, basically, covered with rocks, but our space scientists apparently do not intend to stop until they obtain photographs of every last one of them.

Which leads us to the president's plan for getting to Mars, which consists of four stages:

Stage One -- We set up a base on the Moon, which has less gravity than Earth, because it is farther away.

Stage Two -- We build a rocket up there, using cheap local labor.

Stage Three -- Astronauts get into the rocket, blast off from the Moon, and fly back to Earth, where they go to a Wal-Mart and stock up on supplies, especially deodorant.

Stage Four -- They blast off again, and, after a difficult, tedious and extremely dangerous six-month space voyage, arrive -- if all goes well -- on Mars, where they find: rocks. So the benefits are obvious. But what about the costs? The Bush administration says the Mars mission can be accomplished for only 143.8 zillion dollars, but critics claim that the true cost is likely to be much more like 687 fillion dillion dollars. (These numbers are imaginary, but trust me, they're as accurate as any other cost estimates you see about the Mars mission.)

The question is, could this money be better spent? We have many urgent needs right here on Earth. What about the elderly? What about the young people? Could we maybe kill two birds with one stone here and send the elderly and young people to Mars? Will the young people want special "low-rider" astronaut pants with the waist at roughly knee level?

These are indeed complex issues, and clearly what we need, if we are to resolve them, is a serious and sustained national dialogue on our priorities and our goals. You start! I'll be at the dentist.

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