I’m a sucker for . . . space. Not closet space, not personal space, outer space. Pitch-black dome awash with stars. Boiling suns, pock-marked moonscapes, astronauts lightly tethered and floating outside Erector-set homes. Outer space. Every day I check the NASA website and the newest pictures from Mars. I love the idea that Earth’s people are reaching out, exploring the solar system and beyond. We’ve sent missions to the sun, planets, and moons, interstellar space; landed people in the most unlikely-looking crafts to scoop up rocks from Earth’s moon, fiddled with asteroids. The US and the Russians have done some mighty feats of exploration. Now the Russians, our former adversaries, are ferrying our astronauts skyward.
When I was a kid astronauts sported on the moon—something I had only dreamed about but always felt would come true, but in my lifetime? Wow! That first reverent transmission to us from Tranquility Base took about one and a half seconds to reach earth. By contrast, the Voyager spacecrafts, one and two, are about 11 billion miles away, and those signals take more than 16 hours to get to us, but still coming, after 35 years. That’s pretty far out . . . man. I hope the interstellar travelers who find the craft take a moment to play the record that’s on board before they come crashing in to wipe us out with their ultra ray guns, nanobots or whatever. They’re going to hear some beautiful music by Bach that might convince them that at least some of us are not hideous selfish beasts. In The Day the Earth Stood Still it was the music of Bach that convinced the formidable Klaatu that there was hope for humanity: “Klaatu barada nikto.” Which I take to mean: “Gort, turn off the cosmic vacuum cleaner and give these folks a chance.”
SETI, an earthbound space mission, collects data from big telescopes and listening devices, and computers all over the world, harnessed together, form the world’s largest super-computer, to sift through all these results for signals with intelligent origins. These signals will have taken years—centuries maybe—to reach us. Epsilon Eridani, the tenth-closest star to earth, is the nearest one with a planet—it might have two—and only ten and a half light years away. Another hot prospect is 150 light years away. So far, Hubble spectroscopes show it has sodium gas in its atmosphere. So maybe not people, but if we get that far out we’ll at least have salt for our pork chops, right? The Wow! Factor is growing stronger.
Now these three missions are the ones I’m pinning my hopes on, for the only thing that matters: Life, of course. Mars is the closest—35 million miles (the odometer on my ancient Honda is almost that high)—and the best place I’m betting we’re going to find living things, or evidence of it in the planet’s past.
With that knowledge, science will finally have a fighting chance to triumph over ignorance. We people will see we may not be the lords of the universe and ought to take better care of what we would then be sharing with an immensity of other life forms. We’re not the sole focus of whatever gods we might happen to believe in, and we have to get our act together and go out to meet the new neighbors.
When I check out the new photographs each day, of course Mars looks rough and rocky, but like most space fans I long for more. How does the wind-howl sound on Mars? Would live audio from the Curiosity rover reveal nightbirds crying across those seas of cold dust and stone? Those far fliers might not look like the ones we know back here at home, but their songs are calling us.