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14 August 2005

Ad Astra Per Aspera -- a wonderful robot of hope and peace voyages to Mars

With luck, and perhaps an extra prayer or two,
a year from now Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
will begin to survey the entire surface of Mars.
Here it is -- here it may be -- over one of the Martian poles.
Ad astra per aspera. (NASA/JPL)

Take a break from the pathetic mess
on the surface of Earth and for five minutes watch a beautiful, thrilling preview of the robot probe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on Friday and will reach Mars in March 2006.

As you watch, note what the world's mightiest sovereign nation is capable of, what it can do with its minds and its hands and its will, and Not a Single Human Being Nor a Single Animal Will Be Harmed in this Voyage to Revolutionize Our Knowledge of Planet Mars.

A third of the way through the animation from NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (an agency of California Institute of Technology in Pasadena), you will see the MRO gently and efficiently transfer from Earth's orbit around the Sun to Mars' orbit around the Sun, in a path called the Hohmann Transfer Orbit.

Walter Hohmann was a German civil engineer who, as an exercize in Pure Imagination in 1916, tried to figure out what the most fuel-efficient way to travel to other planets was. (His most powerful computer, of course, was his slide rule. They don't need batteries.)

He died in 1945 without ever knowing that his unhappy government had created rockets as weapons with which to bomb cities and terrorize human beings, but rockets which could indeed scrape the edge of space.

Today, every rocket we send to another planet uses his wonderful, elegant navigation plan. He was a member of the German Verein für Raumschiffahrt -- the club of amateur rocket experimenters who called themselves The Space Travel Society. As the Nazi war machine began taking over the Verein and re-directing its efforts from Space Travel to Mass Murder and Terror, Hohmann distanced himself from the Society and from rocketry.

Please cross your fingers for luck, or say a little prayer for a robot, but if all goes well, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will send back more super-close-up photographs and radar data than all previous missions to Mars combined.

A hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, 35 years from now, America's Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be almost completely forgotten -- and what faint memories linger will all be bad, regretful, sorrowful, bitter, ugly, reeking with shame.

But the same Mighty Nation which brings Shock, Awe, Misery and Death to Asians, and to its own children, for lies, bigotry, racism and greed, simultaneously is capable of these remarkable Voyages across the Solar System.

The orbiter carries six scientific instruments for examining the surface, atmosphere and subsurface of Mars in unprecedented detail from low orbit. For example, its high-resolution camera will reveal features as small as a dishwasher. NASA expects to get several times more data about Mars from MRO than from all previous Martian missions combined. Researchers will use the instruments to learn more about the history and distribution of Mars' water. That information will improve understanding of planetary climate change and will help guide the quest to answer whether Mars ever supported life. The orbiter will also evaluate potential landing sites for future missions. MRO will use its high-data-rate communications system to relay information between Mars surface missions and Earth.

If all goes well, the human future which will be desperate to forget the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will rejoice to remember the knowledge this mission will send back to us. As a species, as a nation, we are capable of wonderful things. As a species, as a nation, we are capable of miserable things. Are we the same people?

As MRO glides through its Hohmann Transfer Orbit for the next year, we could take that year to wonder why the same government which sends such violence and destruction to Muslim strangers in Asia also subsidizes these remarkable Adventures whose sole purpose is to collect revolutionary knowledge about one of our planet neighbors. We could take this time to wonder, perhaps to decide, which America we want to be, and which America we want human beings to remember America as -- America the Voyager for Knowledge, or America the Deadly New Hate-Filled Rome.


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