|Tuesday, December 7, 1999||
Volume 65, Issue 74
Moeller on goodbyes
Ed De La Garza
Please save our probes!
The Mars Pathfinder was the biggest publicity draw for space since the lunar landing and the Apollo program. People tuned in to the Internet and saw Mars, up close and very personal. It was red. It was big.
Then tragedy struck. The technogeek's Tonka truck stopped sending data when its limited span of use was up. Status: somewhere on the surface of the Angry Red Planet looking for a power outlet to snuggle with.
At least now, for all intents and purposes, the little guy has some cast-off buddies to keep him company. Scientists aren't getting a peep out of the Mars Polar Lander that was supposed to have landed and have sent back some signal by Friday, or from the two mini-probes that were to have detached from the lander while it was falling to the surface.
In a way, it's no big loss. It's not as if we sent a manned craft to Mars and lost the signal when they landed. NASA doesn't even have that much control over unmanned probes while they transit between Earth and their destinations. It's like firing a huge bullet at a racing target you can't even see and hoping you eyeballed it right.
On the other hand, it's also like shooting $165 million into space, knowing you might never see one cent of it again. How much peace and happiness could you spread on earth with that money?
And let's not mention to the poor little castaways that somewhere on Mars lies the charred husk of their middle sibling, the Mars Climate Orbiter. Cause of death: math error.
The only probe currently active over the planet is the Mars Global Surveyor. It's the only craft that is smart enough to follow the cardinal rule of spacegoing: Stay away! You know those Martians are taking potshots at anything that comes through the (almost nonexistent) atmosphere. Why play into their hands?
Maybe that's advice we could take down here. Make all the new probes you want, but don't blast them at our space neighbors until you know that they'll be worth something on arrival. Put them on display until then. They're so cute the public will pay for a peek. They've got all that gold foil and those royal blue solar cells.
They just deserve better than a swift jet-engine boot into the cold,