Why I Love the Mars Rovers

Why do I care so much about the Mars rovers?

A lot of people have asked me that, after seeing printouts of Spirit andOpportunity photos in my folder at work, and hearing me jabber on at them about how beautiful or spectacular the latestpanorama is. Well, let me try and explain. Here's my latest colourised versionof black and white "raw" images taken by the rover Opportunity.

Didn't take me long, about half an hour to "make". But whybother? Well, try looking at that picture, and what it represents. There aremany, many people doing what I do, i.e. making our own images out of NASA rawimages. People who don't do it for a living, but do it for love and personalsatisfaction; people who don't have to do it to get paid, but have to do itbecause they want to see an image of Mars showing what they would see it ifthey were stood there. That picture wasn't put together in a shiny JPL lab, orroom, with state of the art pcs and software and a pay cheque at the end, itwas made without pay, in a corner of my kitchen, on a normal PC withfreely-available software and equipment, with all the distractions andcommitments of everyday life going on in the background. It makes my head spinsometimes that we can do that, and that thousands of people across the worldare doing it, it really does. (hence my poem "Quilts")

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why am I moved to make images, and writepoetry, about the Mars rover mission? Well, I have a confession to make. After severaldecades of optimism I have just about given up on looking forward to seeingpeople on Mars in my lifetime. Best guesstimate for a manned expedition iswhat, 2030? I'll be... fingers time... 65. Not a ridiculous target, I know, butfactor in the inevitable engineering and political delays with getting NASA's proposed moon missions going and Ares andOrion flying, the growing problems of climate change that will need tacklingwith BIG $$$$$$$ and the growing danger of a terrorist attack of such devastatingsavagery, nuclear or chemical, that will stop everything else in its tracks forwho knows how long, and, well, I just don't feel that confident I'll seeastronauts bunny hopping across Mars' surface on my widescreen HD TV before Ipop my clogs, I really don't.

And that's pretty heartbreaking, because three things, three Events,drive me onwards as far as space is concerned: One, the detection of a SETIsignal, two, the first image of an Earth-like world around another star, and three, amanned landing on Mars. Now, I'm pretty confident I'll see one and two before I go,I really am. But that third one, hmmm, that's going to be awkward. I've stoodin front of countless thousands of people these past two decades, giving talks,telling them all how "we'll see people on Mars in our lifetime"...but the last time I did it I said it and didn't believe it myself. Which wasawful. And very sad.

Of course, when we discover bacterial life on Mars all bets are off, that mightspeed things up. But I just have this nagging, sick-in-the-bottom-of-my-stomachfeeling that it's slipping away from me, you know?

Which is why these little rovers mean so much to me. They're MY eyes onMars, my representatives there. I talked in that last poem about Spirit about"walking alongside" the rover, and that's really how I feel. Likemany "Mars enthusiasts", I check rover-related websites (Exploratorium,UMSF etc) several times a day, looking for new pics, following the latest legof the journey. Every time the rovers move and bring a new horizon into view Ifeel a genuine thrill of discovery, of exploration. That run-up to the edge ofVC was UNBEARABLE! Every day so close, so close... then we were there, "Oppy" andI, on the edge, looking into and across it... well, Steve Squyres' long, tight-throatedpause in his interview with Doug Ellison on the Unmanned Spaceflight forum(Google it, you won't regret it) described my own feelings superbly. It waslike the very first time I saw Yosemite Valley, after emerging from that long tunnel into the sunlight to see The View, wheregiant hands had reached down from the heavens and wrenched the Earth apart. Look. At. That.

So, that's why I love these rovers. They're as close as I'm ever going to get,I fear, to either being on Mars myself or following a manned mission to Mars.

And that's why I sit here, writing poetry about plucky little rovers stuck in martiandust dunes looking up forlornly at Earth, and why I spend many painfully-longhours on dialup downloading black and white pictures and making them intosomething else. They show me - yes me, that shy, would be astronaut geeky kidfrom school, who sat in the library pouring over the space books there insteadof kicking a ball about outside - what I always dreamed of seeing with my owneyes but never will.

That's why I love the Mars rovers.

Because they're me.

Stuart Atkinson,Eddington Astronomical Society, Kendal, Cumbria. Atkinson is an amateur astronomer and children'sscience author from the UK. A self-confessed "Mars nut" he writes frequently aboutthe Red Planet for newspapers, magazines and websites.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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