Friday, August 10, 2012

Martian Chronicles

Something about the homely detail of pebbles and dust kicked onto the surface of this American spacecraft, so improbably delivered intact to within 1.5 miles of its intended target on another world, rouses in me a sense of pride on behalf of Homo sapiens and, more surprisingly, of Homo americanus. I was not quite seventeen at the time of the first manned moon landing, and I’m sixty now. Given that the first successful US automated soft landing on the moon had been just three years earlier at the time of Apollo 11, I and many others still imagined in 1976, when the Viking probes landed on Mars, that a manned follow-up would be at most a couple of decades away. There's talk now about doing this sometime in the 2030s, but I suspect that by then our empire will have dissolved into regions devoting their limited energies toward trade and territorial skirmishes, and that the Chinese will have the appropriate honor of planting their flag on the Red Planet. 

And yet, and yet. For all Grover Norquist’s snark (now there's someone I wouldn't mind seeing drowned in a bathtub), I regard the present mission as a worthy expenditure of our per capita pennies, am moved by these preliminary panoramas from the surface, and look forward to several years of vivid images from the CCDs of this extraordinary robot. I have little patience with “American exceptionalism” and claims of US “greatness” (USA numbah one? Prison population; gun homicides among developed countries, and sundry other dishonorable metrics), but it should be observed to the credit of this savage former republic that while other countries or agglomerations of countries might have been capable of this feat, none have to date contrived to accomplish anything close to it. Much of what this country has done is a bloody stain on the record of the human species, but its program of planetary probes should be honored and emplaced as a starry tiara on the troubled brow of this jumped-up race of carnivorous, aggressive, highly territorial apes.*

*The image is intended to evoke Kubrick's 2001. Imagine how close to that vision we might have come had the treasure expended on the instruments and appurtenances of armed conflict and “defense” these past forty years been thrown instead toward the cosmos...

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