Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 15, 2008

Phoenix – The Firebird Has Landed

If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed the fact that about two weeks ago, the U.S. took the first step toward putting a man on Mars. Yup. No little green men. Us. On Mars. By 2025, I predict.

Over at Science Daily is a story on the various analyses being done this week by the superbly engineered (but imperfect) ship that took that first step toward colonization, the Phoenix Mars Lander. It landed near the polar cap of Mars on May 25, and will be functioning there for three months or longer, if all goes as planned. The deceptively difficult process of landing it without crashing or damaging it was a major feat and their biggest worry, as important as the robotic arm design or the analytic processes it can do.  But now that it’s there and safe, it’s analyzing soil samples and searching for microscopic signs of former life on the red planet. We’ve sent smaller craft there in the past decade, which sent back some cool photos and video. But Phoenix is the more promising technology, as it has a wider variety of ways to collect scientific data, and more detailed visual/photographic capabilities. And if it actually finds evidence of previous life forms on Mars… ooh baby, people will definitely sit up and take notice then. It will slightly alter our view of ourselves, God, and the universe from that day on. How could it not, right?

Regarding putting humans up there: the full trip, using current technology, would take about eight months and cost a minimum of $320 million. Various proposals are circulating and competing among NASA-types and academics, and nobody’s making any firm decisions yet, but I’m betting we’ll get there in a few years and start building the actual transport vehicles.

Regarding the present mission, the big splash will be if Phoenix actually finds any organic material in its explorations of the surface. Philosophically, theologically, and scientifically, all heaven could break loose if we have confirmation, finally, that life exists in the universe beyond our own planet. Some stuffed shirt will probably still find a way to take all the fun out of exploring the galaxy (“too expensive… besides, what if we discover others and it turns out they hate us?”), but at least we’ll potentially get out of the present rut and start looking up again, with hope instead of dread.

If we don’t kill our own planet first, that is.

Other tangential, Phoenix-related recommendations:

1) I finally saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this week. Pretty good, dramatically-speaking, though the plotline is seeming kind of Star Wars-y  by now, and this one’s not as humorous as some of the former films. I’m a complete Muggle when it comes to all things Potter, but for fans of interesting acting, one can’t do much better than Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Snape) and Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), not to mention Emma Thompson (whatever her goofy character is called). Even Daniel Radcliffe holds his own against these all-star Brits, though. The kid can act.

2) One of my three or four favorite pieces of classical music is Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I’ve never heard it performed live, or seen the ballet, but it’s so dramatic and mood-altering on CD that I rise up from the ashes of my own sniveling, burnt-out self every time I hear it. Find anyone’s version. The one I use was recorded by the Boston Symphony, and as a bonus has Stravinsky’s stormier, louder Rite of Spring on the same CD, recorded by Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

May the fire of the Phoenix, a passion for artistic and scientific greatness, burn in our hearts.



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