January 23, 2004
Lost in Space
First it was the Beagle and now it is the Spirit. Is this a warning? I suspect that many of the anti-space lobby will now be out in force proclaiming that if God had meant us to fly he would never have given us a railway.
In a sense, I suppose they have an argument, but, as the irascible Dr Samuel Johnson once told an argumentative critic of his, "Sir! I have found you an argument. I am not obliged to find you an understanding!"
That is the problem, in a nutshell, the space programme has probably driven more development worldwide than we appreciate. In my own profession our protective clothing, the materials we use to provide "passive" fire protection and even some of the alloys we are now using to make our tools lighter and more managable are all a result of the space programme. Advances in medicine, in computer hardware and a range of other hardware can all be traced to things on those original space craft. It is back to understanding the difference between a "cost" and a "value". Some things cost almost nothing yet have incalculable value, others cost an arm and a leg, yet have almost no value. The Mars projects have a high price tag, but they have a value beyond anything in pure economic terms.
While some will be saying that the lost Beagle demonstrates that it was a waste of money, in reality even in losing it, we have learned something and advanced a small step towards actually landing one and getting it to work. It seems that contact has been briefly regained with the Spirit Rover, which suggests that the problem with that one may be fixable. I hope it is, because that will take the wind out of the anti-space windbags. Sure they could spend the money on something "beneficial", but would it actually be as as beneficial? I doubt it - especially in the light of the billions already vanishing into various civil servant dominated and mismanaged public services such as the National Health Service, Social Services and Education.
ET may be trying to phone home, let's check the phonelines and keep going. After all, the orbital station has already made a spectacular discovery and may yet make even more of a success of the mission than the Beagle would have done sat in its isolated little patch of Martian Desert. The fact that there is water on Mars means that a permanent base could be built there and humans could survive there in specially constructed shelters.
What we need to know now, and soon, is why did the Rover go offline? Is it something in the atmosphere, or is it equipment breakdown. One thing is for sure, we will need to have a complete answer before we send anyone to stand on that barren planet, but the moment we do so, we will have changed the course of human development for ever.
Posted by The Gray Monk at January 23, 2004 11:49 PM