No, I'm not talking about the abysmal movie with Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins. I'm talking about the real deal.
It's strange the things I find myself emotionally attached to. I think as gamers, technophiles, geeks, and non-geeks with latent nerd tendencies, we probably all hide a secret connection to something inanimate or fictional that we don't generally talk about in public. In 1997 my brief passion and odd sympathies lay with this little fella:
In the face of abject isolation, he stuck his determined snout into rusted soil and sent stream after stream of data flooding back across solar distances, struggling on in the thin cold Martian air longer than anyone might have guessed until finally, spent, he shut quietly down and lay dead under the bitter Martian night. Come on, I'm not made of stone here!
I grew up an astronomy geek. If I had any head for mathematics beyond simple multiplication, I would have pursued my deep desire to study astrophysics. Unfortunately integrals send me into cold sweats, and try as I might, I simply don't have the capacity to really comprehend concepts like imaginary and irrational numbers, but I never lost an interest in the planets and the stars. So when we finally got around to firing small pieces of electronic equipment at Mars in the late 90's, I got pretty excited.
In many ways, my generation has thus far gotten pretty much screwed out of space exploration. In December of 1972 the crew of Apollo 17 became the last to walk on the face of the moon. Five months after their safe return to Earth, I was born to a nation tired of commonplace trips to the moon, and much more interested in sabre rattling and building ICBMs. Only the trips of stalwart Voyager 1 and 2 sated those interested in the planets. I remember, vaguely, that 1979 day that Voyager 1 sent back the first surprising images from Jupiter, that we learned of its ring system and Io's vulcanism. Much like Sojourner, I still have a soft spot for the two exploring vessels, stealing quietly off to the interstellar void, now beyond the planetary disc. I find myself wondering how far they will go, whether they may be the only remnants of the human race when we're finally gone?
Not until 1981 with the launch of STS-1, and the historic flight of Columbia did space seem to me the sort of place people might go. I was only seven, but I remember watching the launch on a small television in my parent's bedroom, and I remember that I was immediately curious about space exploration. But of course the shuttle didn't lead precisely into a new era of manned trips to the planets, but one of commercial enterprise and practical application. And, of course, I remember the day Challenger exploded.
So, as I said, when we started flinging bits of technology toward Mars, I pricked up and took notice. And, on July 4, 1997 when Pathfinder landed safely on Mars, I smiled more than a bit. For the following weeks I took in every image with what I can only call a childlike awe. Designed to last 30 days at best, Pathfinder sent back its last transmission nearly 3 month later, on Sol 83, September 27, 1997. By that time I was attached to the tiny rover, and my first thought, one I stand by, was: someday, we need to go there and bring Sojourner back home. It's a senselessly antropomorphic thought process, I know, but like I said, we all have our strange attachments.
On top of my monitor sits a limited edition, gold plated Sojourner figurine that my wife bought for my birthday the following year. On the shelf above, still in its package, is the Hot Wheels, Action Pack Sojourner Mars Rover. In a few years, I'm going to give that Action Pack to my son so that he can tear it open and play the figures into destruction, the way a good toy was meant to be treated. Collectibles be damned!
I mention all this because one new rover is on the pad waiting for a launch window this afternoon as a second is set to take to the skies later this month. With any luck these new robotic explorers won't fall victim to what's become known as the 'Curse of Mars' - only 1/3 of our attempted landings have been successful - and can send back a wealth of new information about the Red Planet come January 2004, but either way I'm just strangely satisfied that we're trying. I only hope that soon enough we send ourselves to these other planets to explore their surfaces again for ourselves.
Some might ask why we would do such a thing. It is dangerous. It isn't practical. It isn't profitable. It is money wasted, they might argue. And I don't know how to talk with people like that; that believe all of life, all of science, all of our desires and passions should only be put to the practical, the applicable, the safe. There is more than a little to be said for expanding our knowledge, our shared experiences. The value of sending men to Mars is in the accomplishment itself, and for people who can't understand that, I have a great deal of pity. Because, for as completely irrational as I know it is, I think that a dead piece of cold metal that briefly rolled across Mars in 1997 was far more alive than the people who can not see the value of space exploration.