Tue 27 May 2008
Media have announced with much ado the landing of the Phoenix Mars probe, one newspaper going so far as to say “we have landed on Mars”. Well, in fact “we” have landed nowhere – this is just an automatic drone that will be digging some ground and doing some experiments on it, after which it will be effectively a webcam on Mars (for some time).
Now, this would have been a great achievement in the early seventies or late sixties. It was a great achievement when the Viking crafts landed on Mars. It is nothing to be proud of that three decades later all we are capable of as a civilization is sending just another robot. This lander may be more sophisticated than the Vikings but it weights roughly half their weight (350 kg vs. 572 kg) – which means we can now haul less mass to Mars surface than 30 years ago! And it will have more sensors etc. but what it will in fact do will be a large repeat of Vikings – dig some soil, analyze it, snap some pictures around, measure the winds.
The sad fact is that no man left low Earth orbit since December 1972 when the last Apollo mission was launched. And even the probes sent are less numerous and smaller than those sent thirty years ago. The space programs of major Earth powers have went stale or were abandoned. NASA facilities in Cape Canaveral smell like an old museum and they in fact are one. Shuttles were a failure, even though no one admits that and no replacement is in sight. The most powerful launch vehicle developed – the Russian Energia rocket – was abandoned too.
I don’t know why it is so, why our progress into space is held back. There may be many reasons for that – ranging from social to all kinds of conspiracy theories. However, in any case I can’t stand media applauding menial landings of small probes as great achievements. This is not fair and real journalism as it lacks historical background that would put those “achievements” in prospective.