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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, December 21, 2015

Should the First Martian Astronauts Be “Anomaly Argonauts”?

The United States spent 24 billion dollars (the equivalent of 180 billion in today's dollars) on several trips to the moon to perform the very boring job of collecting rocks. Why was so much money spent on such a boring task? History books say that national prestige was one of the main reasons for the Apollo project. But there's another reason that is rather harder to explain. The Apollo project was funded largely because during its prime funding years people were still in the grips of an enthusiastic “space fever” that gripped the country in the late 1950's and the early 1960's.

To understand this space fever, we should imagine ourselves in the boring white-bread world of the late 1950's. In those years magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements started to proclaim the coming of an exciting new Space Age. To a public which had never seen a space flight, this seemed like almost the most exciting thing imaginable. When the Mercury program started putting astronauts into space, in very dangerous manned missions, it was for quite some time “the greatest show on Earth.” Each time a Mercury astronaut got on the launchpad, TV viewers really had no idea whether the whole thing was going to blow up in a fiery explosion.

In about the middle of this “space fever,” the Apollo program was announced. People were still in the grip of a great enthusiasm for space travel, and were willing to fund the program to the hilt. But by the time of the second moon landing, space fever started to wear off. People got quickly tired of the Apollo missions, and started asking: why are we spending such astronomical funds on missions that do little but gather rocks?

NASA would like the public to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a mission to Mars. But it seems unlikely that the public will ever get Mars fever quite the way they once got space fever back around 1960. The public has now been exposed to so many space movies, space TV shows, and space video games that our attitude is now almost kind of:

Travel to another planet? Been there, done that.

Well, not really, but it sure feels that way, once CGI has treated you to a hundred different versions of astronauts on another planet, all in vivid detail.

So how can NASA generate the type of interest and enthusiasm that might be needed to fund a manned Mars mission? They won't be able to do it by highlighting the opportunities for rock collection on Mars. People have figured out from the Apollo missions that rock collection is as dull as dishwater.

But there's a way in which NASA might be able to brew up some serious interest for a manned Mars mission: leverage the paranormal.

The Mars rovers such as Opportunity and Curiosity have photographed an astonishing variety of anomalous-looking things on Mars. They are discussed in this series of blog posts. You can find more examples by doing a Google image search for “Mars anomaly.”

Two recent examples are the "Mars mouse" shown at the top of this original NASA photo, and the Mars dome shown at the top of this original NASA photo. The composite photo below shows the "mouse" and "dome."

mars anomalies
Two of the many Mars anomalies (credit: NASA)

 I showed a closeup of this “mouse” to my wife and one of my daughters, without telling them it was from Mars, and asked: “What does this look like?” They both instantly answered: a mouse. Then there's the recently discovered anomaly discussed here, which looks like some ancient Assyrian face. 

NASA's approach to these anomalies has been very standoffish. But what if these anomalies (and similar anomalies that may be discovered in future years) were to be made the centerpiece of a new Mars mission? That just might generate the kind of enthusiasm needed to fund a new mission.

Here is how NASA might pitch a future Mars mission to the public:

It's time to wake up and smell the coffee. How many Martian domes and Martian “traffic lights” and Martian mouses and Martian sculptures and ridiculously long “levitating” Martian spoons can we photograph before it is obvious that some type of higher power is at work here, or was at work? We don't know what that higher power is, or whether it still exists; and we don't know whether it was extraterrestrial, spiritual, extra-dimensional or supernatural. But we want to send our guys to go investigate these incredibly strange things our rovers have photographed, and hopefully bring some of them back and put them in a museum for the whole world to look at. While doing this, we just might discover the secret of the universe.

That's a sales pitch that probably beats this one:

Please give us 500 billion dollars to send people to Mars, because rocks and boulders are incredibly interesting. Why on Mars there are some fascinating sedimentary striations, and all kinds of very interesting metamorphic mineral concentrations.

We can imagine a Mars mission specifically centered around investigating anomalies. It would require some rover vehicle that would be capable of driving many miles so that astronauts could investigate many different previously photographed anomalies. But this would probably be feasible. Most of the Mars anomalies are concentrated in particular areas of Mars that were traversed by the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. The anomalies are not randomly scattered across the planet.

The issue of making anomaly investigations a central part of a future Mars mission is relevant to an important upcoming decision: the decision about where the next Mars rover should land. To keep in play the possibility of a manned mission centered around anomaly investigation, the next rover should land not all that far from either the Curiosity landing site or the Opportunity rover landing site. In that case you would (after about the year 2025) have two thirds of the discovered anomalies in a relatively small area of Mars that could be conveniently checked out by a landing team equipped with a rover vehicle.

I can imagine a way to describe astronauts on a mission centered around anomaly investigation. Recalling the ancient tale of “Jason and the Argonauts,” the astronauts could be described as Anomaly Argonauts. When you think of it, the story of “Jason and the Argonauts” was a tale of investigating and retrieving a paranormal object. The paranormal object was the Golden Fleece, which presumably was paranormal, because the fleece of a regular animal isn't made of precious gold. NASA could make use of this famous tale, kind of recasting it in modern garb. The sales pitch might go a little like this:

Long, long ago they told the tale of how brave voyagers risked great dangers to travel far away, so that they could bring back a strange eerie object more wondrous than any a man had ever seen. Now our brave astronauts will embark on a similar voyage, hoping to bring back not just one such object, but several of them.

I could imagine how such an approach might generate more interest than one in which astronauts are depicted mainly as just rock collectors.