I was 13 years old when the Russians launched Sputnik.
A few years later, President Kennedy declared our intention to take
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
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
In 1975, the Viking lander sent signals across the void of space from the
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 www.reston.com/astro/mars/catalog.html
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
(www.astro.cf.ac.uk/pub/Miguel.Alcubierre/index.html) 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.
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
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
"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
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."