Cosmic Debris

Life on Mars?

Courtesy of The Islander News, Key Biscayne's award-winning newspaper -- file date: 1997

While I sit here tapping away at the keyboard of my trusty computer, an intrepid little mechanical explorer is hard at work, or play, surveying the Martian landscape 119 million miles away.

The name of this curious man-made creature is Sojourner, and NASA has done an incredible job of not only producing the equipment and executing the mission at a relatively cut-rate price, but also of personifying what is basically a conglomeration of nuts and bolts and computer chips.

Just as Walt Disney animated otherwise inanimate objects like brooms, teapots and doorknobs, NASA has breathed the life of personality into Sojourner, who was named after the Civil War era abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Ironically, she entered the Martian atmosphere in true cartoon fashion. Her spaceship split apart several dozen feet above ground and, encased in a swale of airbags, she fell from the sky to bounce around mightily before settling on alien soil. Her protective cocoon then opened like Fantasian flower petals, and Sojourner cautiously emerged, antenna snapping into place and roving eyes taking snapshots of the scenery which she would use to send postcards home:

Dear Mom and Dad,
The trip was kinda boring, but the landing was way cool. This place is totally awesome. It looks a lot like that park we went to in Arizona last summer, but redder. Colder too. Haven't seen any signs of life yet, but will keep looking. In the meantime, I miss you and wish you were here.
Love, Sojourner

Since Sojourner sounded homesick already, mission control gave familiar names to some nearby rocks so she would feel less alone. The closest rock, which appeared to have a major skin problem, became Barnacle Bill. Another one, which looked as though it might have swallowed a pic-a-nic basket or two was christened Yogi, and another was called Scooby-Doo.

Suddenly, the austere Martian landscape was populated by cartoon characters. And what does Sojourner do? As NASA describes it, she crept up to Barnacle Bill and started "sniffing around."

Knowing that Sojourner had made a long,long trip from home with nary a rest stop on the way, I was almost surprised that she didn't spring a hydraulic leak then and there.

But what she was doing was taking samples, which she would then analyze and send home with her next letter. She really is a remarkable little machine, as daring as the brave little toaster, as relentless as the little engine that could and as endearing as R2-D2. NASA has not only scored a technological victory, but also a public relations coup by Disnifying what past NASA people would have called "a remote mobile alpha proton x-ray spectrometer."

In effect, our machines are becoming more human in nature. IBM's Big Blue was programmed to "think" creatively enough to beat Garry Kasparov, then the undisputed heavyweight chess champion of the world (though Big Blue is not so human that it would try to bite Kasparov's ear during a round when it's getting the chips beaten out of him). Autos and elevators now talk to us, reminding us that we forgot our keys or to step to the rear; some computers catch viruses, others take voice commands better than most, if not all, two-year-old humans; and the good old Hubble telescope was, according to a NASA press release, "myopic" till some shuttle spacewalkers/optometrists outfitted it with "glasses."

On the flip side of this humanizing evolution of machinery is the mechanization of humans. The more we learn how the body works, the more it seems to be just another machine. The brain runs on electrical impulses, the heart is a fuel pump, the stomach a gas tank, the intestines a carburetor and the liver a chemical factory and the gall bladder a filter. Medical mechanics use scalpels for wrenches and rachets and lasers to solder and weld. And when an organ fails, we can sometimes get a replacement part from a human junk yard.

Recently, scientists have been able to manufacture new parts by growing cell colonies in biodegradable molds, building new bladders and windpipes for sheep, a kidney for a rat and leg muscles for a rabbit. Brand new human spare parts are probably just a generation away.

Then you have the whole cloning thing, where scientists are reaching the capability to mass produce a certain genetic being. Imagine an assembly line in a lab somewhere, workers putting together models of humans in roughly the same fashion that Henry Ford's factory men put together the Model A. While mass producing people may be beyond moral limitations, it soon won't be beyond technical capabilities.

In our perceptions, machines are becoming more human and humans arebecoming more machine-like. So what's the point? I'm not sure. Maybe we should ask our friend Sojourner as she traipses along the surface of Mars, socializing with Barnacle Bill, Yogi and Scooby-Doo, careful not to stumble into a chasm and fall thousands of feet like the Roadrunner's hapless nemesis, Wile E. Coyote.

But even if she did fall and had her mechanical life snuffed out in a rising cloud of red, Martian dust, she would have already proven that life does indeed exist on Mars. We know that for a fact because we put it there. You can see life everywhere, in Barnacle Bill, Yogi, Scooby-Doo and especially in Sojourner herself, that little skateboard of a cosmic traveler we've all grown to know and love.