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Mars! Mars! Mars!

By Annalee Newitz

HERE I AM on Mars again. I can't stop looking at NASA's boppy, well-organized website (marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html) devoted to the adventures of Spirit and Opportunity, my favorite Martian robots ever. I love those 400-pound, plutonium-heated smoopy-poopies. I want to invite them out for a really great dinner at an expensive restaurant and forget about all the bad things that the government has ever done. Because the government is also NASA! And the people at NASA who made these cool Martian robots jump around and hug each other when their machines work!

The Mars geeks say silly things to each other on NASA TV like, "Anomalies exert a gravitational pull on engineers." When everybody on Slashdot.org was freaking out with Martian bliss, the NASA engineers posted comments and said stuff like, "Yup we read Slashdot, too." Did I mention that I love these guys? I don't feel ironic about this at all.

But back to my Martian robots. What is Spirit doing today? The semirepaired Mars rover is taking a very close look at two rocks, which NASA nerds have nicknamed "Cake" and "Blanco." Everything on Mars is so cool that we want to name all of it! Let's call that little bump over there "Roundie," and this grain of sand can be called "Li'l Kim." Also, I want to name every damn speck on that hill full of nifty rocks that Opportunity has captured in lovely, full-color panoramic shots. I even want to name the smeary marks Spirit left on the red sands with its landing balloons.

The Mars rovers are teaching us to appreciate robot art. I can think of nothing more poignant than Spirit's first self-portraits after landing. From its navigation camera, we get a strange view of its seemingly fragile body, cradled still in the landing capsule, surrounded by the diminishing puffs of its parachute and an enigmatic, barely comprehensible slice of the Martian landscape.

It's like looking through the eyes of a child as she stares down at her own body, realizing for the first time that she is inside this weird collection of limbs that are about to traverse a strange, unexplored planet.

I've been thinking a lot about restarting Kim Stanley Robinson's famously realistic series of novels about colonizing Mars--I got through Red Mars, but the sequel, Green Mars, was just too irritatingly epic for me. Now I'm reconsidering my position. I just want more Mars in my life right now.

The Mars rover mission is the perfect example of what I want my government to be doing. This is why I pay my taxes. I think it's testimony to how little faith I have in the U.S. political system that I'm actually shocked that the government has done something with my money that is entirely free of evil.

OK, so it is kind of scary to think that we sent some chunks of radioactive plutonium over there inside the rovers--I'm trying not to think about cute, fuzzy aliens eating it--but it is what keeps Spirit and Opportunity's circuits from freezing in the minus-150-degree-Celsius Martian night.

And perhaps there is a dark side to the fact that President Bush is touting all this space program crap now, claiming we'll have a "man" on Mars soon (because after all, we want to keep the women at home tending the kitchens and squirting out babies). The Iraq war is draining our nation's coffers, unemployment and underemployment are a terrible problem, and our education system is crumbling. But if we all think about the niftiness of our Martian robots for a while--and our marvelous future as space colonists--we'll forget our domestic problems long enough to re-elect a leader who thinks that freedom of the press is a "special interest" and tax cuts help the poor.

And yet I cannot dismiss the Martian mission as sheer nationalist propaganda. It's true that if we do find living beings on Mars, it's likely the U.S. government will figure out ways to exploit and colonize the buggers.

But luckily, Mars appears pretty lifeless so far. My hope is that Mars will become a new human home, a place where we get the chance to reimagine our shared cultures. Sure, we'll bring our problems with us. But we will also be forced to transform ourselves.

That's why I go to the NASA rover website every day and sift through the images our robots send us, searching the Martian horizon for new shapes, new views. I'm not just looking for hematite and water. I'm looking for the future.


Annalee Newitz (roboticmartian@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who has dreams like everybody else does.


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From the February 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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