Life on Mars

        I was 13 years old when the Russians launched Sputnik.
        A few years later, President Kennedy declared our intention to take the moon.
        His administration effectively used the media to engage the public in that adventure. Television, photos and movies from the moon, enhanced by reams of print, were used to construct a virtual world that expanded our sense of transplanetary possibilities.
        That construction became a new perceptual framework for humankind, with two primary points of reference. The first was a view of the Earth from the moon, enabling us to see our planet whole for the first time. The second was our vicarious participation through television in the first lunar landing.
        The way we frame reality determines our belief in what is possible; our possibilities for action are "back-engineered" from our belief systems. The translation of lunar exploration into a media event enabled us to construct a new future for ourselves. No longer the stuff of science fiction, we now knew that our children and grandchildren would leave "Mother Earth" and colonize near-Earth space.

        In 1975, the Viking lander sent signals across the void of space from the Martian surface.
        I waited for them with my neighbor, a video ham operator. The first signals from Mars painted a narrow band across the top of his monitor. The band thickened slowly until it became a reddish Martian sky.
        The Martian desert that appeared line by line on our video screen looked familiar. The rock-strewn, wind-blown landscape looked like Nevada. The sweep of the Martian terrain toward the distant horizon was an open invitation.
        My heart rose to my throat. My childhood dreams, images from Ray Bradbury and Captain Video, memories of War of the Worlds, my terror at Invaders from Mars. I remembered the first time I saw the small reddish disc of the neighboring planet through a telescope.

        I was seized with yearning. I want to go! I want to go to Mars!

        But it was not to be. Not yet.
        The exploration of near-Earth space diminished as public interest and funding declined. The problems of our home planet and the end of the Cold War preoccupied us. My dreams of hiking that Martian desert and exploring ancient river beds in the shadow of Olympus Mons were dashed.
        Until now. Now we can go to Mars. We can all go to Mars.
        Our vehicle is the Internet.

        Three Martian missions were recently launched. The Russian Mars orbiter, which was intended to deploy landers as well, was aborted when the launch vehicle failed and fell into the ocean.
        The United States launched Mars Global Surveyor in November and Mars Pathfinder in December. The latter will arrive first because of a shorter flight path and is scheduled to touch down in Ares Vallis on July 4, 1997.
        Pathfinder will glide through the thin Martian atmosphere on a parachute and deploy a huge cluster of air bags to ensure a soft landing. A Martian rover will roll out into that desert like R2-D2 on oversized wheels.
        The rover is a robot called Sojourner. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) arrived at the name after holding a year-long, world-wide competition that challenged participating students to choose a heroine and explain why the rover was linked to that person. Sojourner Truth, an African-American woman who traveled up and down the land advocating rights for women, lent her name to the rover.
        Sojourner will be a mobile outpost of the Internet. Pictures broadcast back to Earth will be posted in real time as they arrive, 20 to 40 minutes after the signals leave Mars. Conspiracy theories to the contrary, the live feed from Mars will not be filtered. Even if someone is jumping up and down in front of her cameras, Kennedy Space Center insists that Web users will see what Sojourner sees as she crawls over the rocks and sand. The mission's Web page is already operational at mpfwww.

        Mars on the Internet has two dimensions.
        The physical exploration of Mars is the first. Sojourner will be our eyes and hands as we sample the Martian desert, a telerobotic sensory extension of human beings disseminating her digital data over the Internet.
        The other project is more complex. Just as television from the moon became the occasion of a contextual shift for all humankind, the exploration of space on the Internet is altering the way we construct reality. The intentional use of the Internet by NASA is also part of a larger design to ensure ongoing support for planetary exploration. Current activity on the Net reflects a convergence of the mutual self-interest of government, industry and the educational establishment as they mobilize the human resources of the nation and the world on behalf of their plans.

        First, the physical.
        The Internet is a sensory extension of the physical exploration of Mars. Sojourner will let us look through her lenses and see what she sees. The first pictures are due on Earth about 5 p.m. PST on the Fourth of July. Pictures will be updated hourly.
        Those who have tried to download a new version of a browser as soon as it's released might question the wisdom of inviting an entire planet to this virtual party. Television could broadcast the lunar landing to everyone simultaneously. Isn't there a potential problem with bandwidth?
        "The servers at JPL would be overwhelmed," acknowledges Cheick Diarra, who administers the Internet dimension of the Mars missions for JPL. "We're creating mirror sites all over the world. We think we can accommodate everyone who wants to come to Mars."
        The rover will also become a weather station, sending data on temperature and wind velocity. News and weather from Mars will be available live on the Net every day.
        "We won't be providing chemical data," Diarra adds. "The raw data would be subject to misunderstanding. We don't want people to jump to the wrong conclusions before the data is analyzed and interpreted."
        Wrong conclusions? Such as...looking at a microscopic tubular structure in a meteorite from Mars and concluding that there was life on the red planet? Such as making that dramatic announcement a dozen years after the rock was discovered, in time for Sojourner's launching?
        A mere coincidence, says NASA. Even if it is, there is no mistaking how NASA has amplified the remote possibility that the tube is a real fossil to beat the drums for its Red Rover.
        MARSBUGS is an electronic exobiology newsletter. Its headline--"Life in the Universe: What is the Message from Martian Fossils?"--was typical of the way the Internet magnified the announcements about the meteorite.
        True, the fine print always stated the announcement was speculative, that the microformation was merely "not dissimilar" to microfossils found on Earth, but not necessarily identical. That didn't stop the momentum from building.
        Here is President Clinton, standing on the south lawn of the White House beside his science and technology advisor: "[While this discovery] must be confirmed by other scientists...the fact that something of this magnitude is being explored is another vindication of America's space program and our continuing support for it, even in these tough financial times. I am determined that the American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars."
        Further evidence? How quickly a remote possibility, already challenged by papers published on the Net, is turned into "evidence" used to leverage an "aggressive plan for the robotic exploration of Mars."
        Should Americans be cynical? Carolyn Meinel, an engineer with experience in space propulsion systems, warns through her E-list that the NASA announcement was made by a man faulted in the 1970s for mis-reporting the deliberations of a congressional committee in order to advance NASA's case for additional funding.

        NASA has to do everything "faster, cheaper, quicker" these days, and leveraging scarce resources is part of the new business plan. That plan has five parts: 1) dissemination of knowledge; 2) support for exploration; 3) education through formal and informal means; 4) inspiration; 5) technology development and transfer.
        If you can't think it, you can't believe it, and it's hard to think something without concrete images. Those images--especially if they present archetypal pictures like spirals, luminous nurseries for new stars and exploding suns--attract our projections as magnets attract iron filings. We need to project our search for meaning onto concrete forms. The Mars program is the perfect new frontier for a weary planet now that the Great Mythic Battle between good and evil symbolized in the Cold War is over.
        Hubble's Greatest Hits on the Internet provide the concrete images. The images shown to us by the corrected Hubble telescope bring the universe into closer focus. Surfing those powerful symbolic images illustrates how the Internet is contracting spacetime and expanding our horizons at light speed. The latest photos from the Orion nebula, for example, show more than 700 embryonic stars with proto-planetary discs and 153 solar systems in the process of formation. They map our neighborhood in new ways.
        Christopher Columbus was a mapmaker before he was a voyager. Making maps is one way of transforming what is "out there" into a set of internal possibilities. The process of clicking from image to image--looking now at colliding galaxies, now at the far reaches of the universe magnified by gravitational lenses from galactic clusters--is mapmaking and makes us vicarious voyagers who want to follow those maps into the real territory.
        NASA knows this and makes available on the Net "morphing movies" that transform the Santa Maria into the space shuttle Columbia and the Jules Verne moon rocket into the 1969 lunar craft.
        The Internet, because it discloses a map of possibilities for the next century, is being used to enroll the next generation in the great adventure.
        Teachers and classrooms all over the world are being incorporated into NASA's plans. Naming the rover is one example. The use of the Internet for a global workshop simulating the Mars mission is another.
        "It was an eight hour workshop," Cheick Diarra said. "'Live From Mars' was downloaded to 85 sites, universities and museums, teachers and classrooms and to 11 international sites. We had an incredible response. We got 30-50 questions every day from students and teachers."
        Simulation is key to engaging the imagination. A physical re-creation of the Martian terrain enabled children to take turns driving the rover. Plans call for later Martian rovers to be directed by teams of scientists working together online.
        Does that raise the possibility of techno-terrorists taking over the rover á la James Bond? Not according to one experienced hacker, who said, "Exploring satellites is extremely hard work. It takes many very talented people working together for a long time to get even a few minutes of access. Even then, repeated access is nearly impossible without starting the whole process all over again."
        Long-term projects engage classrooms in extended virtual simulations as well as physical simulations. The Educational Space Simulations Project collects K- 12 teachers into a corps that has already performed hundreds of educational space simulations that parallel reality as closely as possible. Students are involved in every aspect of the journey, from logistical planning to disaster drills.
        One way NASA funds educational activities is through the National Space Grants Colleges and Fellowship Program, designed to create federal and university partnerships and align teachers with its plans.
        No, it isn't a conspiracy, laughed Mary Urquhart, an astronomer in Boulder who developed a curriculum for training students at Van Arzdale Elementary School in Arvada, Colo. Her lessons on colonizing Mars lead to the tangible reward of a certificate that certifies students as Martian colonists. Part of the "Live from Mars" project, Urquhart received space grants to pay for trips to meetings to teach other teachers, but developed the curriculum on her own. She maintains a Web site to disseminate it at her own expense (
        "It's a convergence of mutual self-interest," she said, describing the partnerships among businesses, schools and government much as Eisenhower characterized the military-industrial complex. "To be blunt, we're talking about our future voters, and I want them to see it [space exploration] as something tangible for them and not scary, something they can be a part of."
        "Mutual self-interest" spawns a multitude of Web-based organizations. The National Space Society is one of many grass-roots organizations using the Web to gain membership. Their numbers--80 chapters worldwide and 25,000 members--is strikingly high for a grass-roots organization, so IU asked about the source of their funds. They receive "donations from the aerospace industry to do educational outreach" and are part of a consortium made up of two non-profits and dozens of aerospace companies.

        Mary Urquhart typifies the "practical visionary" excited by the dream of going to Mars, who expresses that yearning in virtual space.
        "I've always wanted to go to Mars. I actually wanted to go as far as I could, and I felt that Mars was probably as far as I could get. Now I don't think I'll get there. "For millennia of human experience, walking on the moon was an unobtainable goal. Once we did that, the world opened up for us. The whole universe has changed for us. That was a baby step."

        Others are looking beyond Mars and using the Net to share their dreams. "To find life, the best place in the solar system is the body that has an ocean," said Eugene Shoemaker, a planetary geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. "I think there's an even more important place to go than Mars. Europa is a better bet and it's more accessible. If there's life there, it ought not to be hard to find."
        The Whole Mars Catalog at is "a roadmap for the exploration of the solar system in the 2000-2015 time frame." Its intention is to "make solar system exploration a part of human experience on Earth," that is, to use every aspect of the Internet to spread the meme of space exploration.

        Deep-space exploration will combine manned expeditions with the deployment of intelligent semi-autonomous robotic agents in space. As the interface between digital and corporeal reality becomes seamless, and agents on the Net are socketed to agents in space, the Internet and its fractal intranet offspring will be both symbol and vehicle of the dispersion of the human sensory apparatus in a way that contracts spacetime like the pull of a drawstring. Just as the physical simulation of the rover morphs into a virtual simulation on the Net, our "hive mind" is swarming into virtual worlds as a way to extend human consciousness.

        The map, however, should not be confused with the territory. It's nice to use computers to look through the lens of the Hubble at deep space, but you can't get there from here. The limits of travel at the speed of light condemn us to a more parochial existence.
        For the moment, perhaps. But a recent paper by Miguel Alcubierre ( speculates that the speed of light is not an absolute limit. At a quantum level it is possible for spacetime to contract in such a way that, to the observer, the vehicle inside that contraction is moving at speeds that are arbitrarily large.
        Warp drive.
        I asked Mary Urquhart about the possibility.
        "Based on what I have heard, the paper is serious and written by someone who is well respected, but it is so purely theoretical at this point that there is no practical application. But we were the same way with black holes for a long time, and now we know they're there. But I don't think we'll see a working warp drive in our lifetime, and even if we were to try to develop it, the funding does not exist."

        Cheick Diarra at JPL is also focused on the territory as distinct from the map. IU suggested that adding the sound of the Martian wind to the vivid images would enhance our ability to participate. Think of a wall-sized flat panel display, with 3-D VR images and the sound of the Martian wind. Wouldn't that be simple to add to the rover?
        Diarra was polite. The addition of anything, he explained, even a single ounce, was a major technological and political undertaking. Everyone wants their pet project included, but it must be measured against the current goal, which is scientific advancement. To add solar panels to send home the sound of the Martian wind would be prohibitive.
        He was polite too about the vision of Robert Zubrin, published as "The Case for Mars," a summary of which is on the Net. Zubrin was a senior engineer at Lockheed Martin and is the founder of Pioneer Astronautics, a space-exploration research and development firm. He is also chairman of the executive committee of the National Space Society.
        Zubrin suggests that we send to Mars only what we need to get there plus the technology needed to make what we'll need to live and to return home. Diarra agrees that Zubrin is a brilliant theorist. Funding for risky, cheap future missions may well be funded by corporate interests seeking a return on their investment. But, he cautions, let's take it one step at a time. Let's find out first if humans can stand the radiation or survive the cold nights. Let's send the robots first and do our homework.
        Diarra's respect for the dangers of interplanetary travel is understandable. That's why I was surprised by the conspicuous absence of any reference to dangers or the possibility of "enemies." As I clicked through Mars-on-the-Net like a mouse in a maze, I felt as if I were moving through a simulated Disneyland from which all unpleasant reality had been screened.
        When Europeans moved into North America, after all, they encountered--and fought--native peoples. When Pacific islanders voyaged through the Pacific, they encountered--and fought--other islanders. Wasn't it likely that we would meet somebody out there?
        Asked about a document I had seen prescribing a scripted response for astronauts when they encounter other civilizations, a spokesman for the Kennedy Space Center said, "I've never seen anything like that," but he added that NASA has redundant contingency plans for every eventuality and they no doubt have that base covered, too.
        IU couldn't resist: We asked about public statements by two astronauts, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper, relating experiences with unidentified flying objects. Slayton described an encounter in Minnesota, when he was a test pilot, to a local reporter and verified his account on NASA letterhead. Cooper called for an investigation of UFO phenomena by the U.N. based on his experiences. Both were ignored.
        This is the response from Kennedy Space Center:
        "You can't take away peoples' individual experiences, and that's what they are. You don't have experiences of other-world organizations contacting U.S. organizations or the military, you have individual experiences. An organization can't take away an experience that an individual has undergone. But if they haven't been involved in it, as an organization they can't validate it. There may be buzz inside an organization based on these individual experiences, but they are individual experiences. That being the case, it isn't our place to speak for the individual.
        "Obviously these things go on, and if they are accurate, they go on without any previous discussion or anybody clearing it with NASA. As an organization, we wouldn't speak to their actual existence unless the organization had experienced it and can say 'we as NASA' have experienced it, 'we we we' not 'I I I'--it has to become an organizational experience."
        "You mean you still have to go to the store and buy bread if this is happening--"
        "Exactly. Everything still continues to go on, regardless of the fact that one in 500,000 people has experiences like that. Does NASA focus their efforts on that or do what we feel is scientifically important for the masses? We're funded by taxes, and taxpayers need improvement in the environment and an understanding of the universe and they want to explore and go to new places-- that takes the lion's share of NASA's attention."

        That response embodies the dialogue in which we are all engaged between the "formal" truths that can be acknowledged by our species collectively and individuals whose experiences are anomalous and don't fit into current orthodox constructions of reality. The warp drive (a Web site, a tiny island on the Net, from which an idea begins to grow), encounters with other civilizations (a simulation of a hall of mirrors on the Net, distorting both experience and intentional disinformation), simulations of the adventure of space travel that filter out those things we do not want to see--the Internet is a mirror in which we see our "hive mind" as it evolves, feeding back to us images of our evolving "selves."
        The Net is also socketed into our telerobotic extensions of ourselves in spacetime, a seamless digital interface with Sojourner and her more autonomous descendants.
        The exploration of outer space as experienced on the Internet is simultaneously an exploration of inner space. The further out we go, the more conscious of ourselves we become. We are evolving toward a convergence of territory and map.
        We are toddlers coming down the front steps for the first time, daring to think of crossing the street.
        Taking baby steps.
        Or as the Web site says: "That's one giant click for mankind."

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