Spacemen vs. Satellites

E-mail Melanie Martella

Mars is on my mind today. Mostly because I just finished reading Mary Roach's Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which is excellent. But also because it looks like Spirit is no longer able to phone home and while the next rover, Curiosity, looks like it'll be a great addition to the pantheon of robotic planetary explorers, I'm more than a little dismayed that working on manned missions to Mars seems to require cuts in the investment into Earth observing satellites to update and replace our current crop.

First I must enthuse about the book, though. Intellectually, I know that putting people into space and bringing them back safely is a staggeringly complicated undertaking. But until I read Mary Roach's book, I don't think I'd fully understood quite what an achievement manned spaceflight is. The sheer variety of questions that nobody had answers to at the beginning: will sending someone into space drive them mad; will their bodies just stop working when they experience weightlessness; how great an acceleration can the human body safely withstand; how do you successfully provide food and water and air in the most hostile of all hostile environments; in the absence of gravity, how do you handle basic bodily functions; and how do you simulate the conditions in space well enough to practice and test to try to ensure a positive outcome? I'll tell you this much, after reading this book, I have mad respect for the astronauts who were (and are) incredibly good sports and for the scientists and technicians who are tasked with making the whole endeavor work. I highly recommend the book. It manages to balance being interesting, funny, and thought-provoking, which is a hard trick to pull off.

We can't send people to Mars yet, but we can and have sent robots. And oh, what robots they are. While Opportunity keeps plugging along gamely, Spirit, alas, hasn't phoned home since March 22 and isn't responding when mission managers page it. The future looks bleak for the plucky little rover. A tangential aside: do any of you read the online Web comic XKCD? Earlier this year, one of the strips dealt with Spirit and even though I know that robots don't have feelings it still made me sniffle. Meanwhile, work continues on the newest rover, Curiosity, scheduled to be launched this fall and land on Mars in August 2012, and tasked to search a specific region to explore the past and present habitability of Mars and to discover whether evidence of prior life has been preserved.

Spaceflight and space exploration have resulted in a much deeper understanding of both human physiology and psychology and our environments here on Earth. We explore this world to figure out how to explore other worlds. Unfortunately, the current raft of Earth observing satellites is in less than stellar shape. Satellites are damaged and replacement satellites have been delayed, important instruments scrapped, and satellite deployments curtailed. In Suzanne Bohan's article, "Dimmer view of Earth" in the San Jose Mercury News, the author explains how the lack of data is affecting climate scientists. Hint, they're not happy and they shouldn't be. At a time when we need more and better climate data—and not just to figure out how the climate is changing, but for more effective farming, weather forecasting, and resource management to name three—the idea that we're not getting it because we're not willing to pony up the funds is maddening to me.

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