Thursday, January 8, 2004

Mars landing

Have your ever caught yourself suddenly conscious that you were smiling? After being so engrossed with something you’re watching or listening to, you suddenly became conscious that your facial muscles have rearranged themselves to form a smile.

That’s what happened to me last Sunday afternoon while watching on TV the press briefing on the Spirit rover’s Mars landing. I was too engrossed it took some time for me to realize I was wearing a grin that didn’t want to go away. I wanted to freeze my grin and go to the mirror to see how silly I looked but I didn’t want to miss what the NASA team was saying to the media.

They were all in their work clothes, looking so casual, so bright, so scientist. Only the politicians were in dark suits. Everybody was in a celebratory mood, champagne flowed, there were cheers and tears. Murphy’s law didn’t apply this time and everything went perfect.

How could one not share their joy and triumph? I have always loved science stories like this, momentous breakthroughs that make one say, ``Things will never be the same again.’’

In fact mission manager Peter Theisinger said something like that. ``You have no idea how this feels,’’ he was quoted in print as saying. But I did catch him saying ``The world will never be the same again.’’ I had pen and paper and I was able to jot that down.

These guys weren’t made for TV like Carl Sagan, the astronomer-host who held people in thrall a decade or so ago with the blockbuster TV docu series ``Cosmos’’. But the NASA guys did great by just being themselves, groping for words to describe how they felt inside and doing away with astronomy jargon. Oh, but how I wished Sagan were alive to witness all this (he died in 1996 at the age of 62), for him to add a dash of stardust and mystical language to the commentary. Surely he would have been interviewed.

``The world will never be the same again.’’ It was a piece of rhetoric, I know, and I even agreed with Theisinger there. But it also hit me like a wayward Skylab piece hurtling to earth. (Remember Skylab? Filipino space freaks named places, vehicles and honky-tonk joints after it. Even Sputnik still lives on as pets and as a crime gang.)

Why did Theisinger’s words hit me so? Because the world is still very much the same as yesterday, wracked with pain and strife. If at all it isn’t the same, it is because it is worse in the trouble department.

During momentous events, like when humans first landed on the moon, or when great individuals were born or killed, it is always good to take note of what happened during that time. Where were you, what were you doing? What were the news headlines on the day of your birth? What was the world like when Jesus was born? What was the reach of the Roman empire?

Well thank God for historians, journalists and writers from all walks of life, we know many things.

Speaking of empires, my grin was all but wiped out when a thought crossed my mind. Will the Mars landing presage more human conquests in outer space that could give rise to planetary empires? Iyo ang Mars, akin ang Venus. Mars, the Red Planet, is named after the Roman god of war.

The mission to Mars is supposed to discover whether life forms once existed or could exist on the planet. The mission cost $820 million. I think about that and I couldn’t help thinking of CNN’s recently-aired ``Surviving Hunger’’ which was about one journalist’s 30-day participatory odyssey into the pit of hunger in Ethiopia, Planet Earth. By Day 20 or so, the video crew had to emergency feed the journalist, otherwise the documentary would end with his funeral. (He was chasing the flies away and whining all the time and I couldn’t help but be amused.)

The killjoys will say that we humans cannot even take good care of our own planet and here is the U.S. spending that staggering amount to explore Mars and search for signs of life. A search has in fact been going on for years now, not just on Mars but outside our solar system, not just for life but for extraterrestrial intelligence. I have this book ``First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’’ (SETI) written by the world’s leading astronomers who confront the question: are we alone in the universe?

I really hope to see life from out there in my own lifetime. This could throw out so many of our beliefs, shake our religious faith, challenge contemporary theology, make us appreciate our ecosystem. It could change the way we look at ourselves and all of creation, and most of all, the way we treat one another. Maybe it is worth all that expense?

To recall, the space draft Voyager was launched in 1977, to explore deep space outside of our solar system, for millions of years. It is now journeying through billions of stars, to the edge of the universe so to speak, hoping to find a finder. It is carrying a record that contains 118 pictures, music, human voices, greetings in 54 languages (including several Filipino languages), sounds of earth, etc. The book ``Murmurs of the Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record’’ is about this effort.

Wrote Sagan): ``No one sends such a message on such a journey without a positive passion for the future. For all the possible vagaries of the message, any recipient could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.’’

We want to find, and we also want to be found. But all that exploration of alien landscapes should also lead us to our own inner landscape, to discover what is good and to root out the evil that lie hidden there.#