- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

“We’re back … and we’re on Mars!” exclaimed jubilant NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe shortly after the Spirit rover signaled it had landed successfully on the red planet. Its landing signals the beginning of an exciting three-month period of discovery and may mark the opening of a period of great achievement in space.

Spirit has already sent back a series of dramatic photos from its landing point in the Gusev crater. Scientists aimed it for that point because they believe that, about 3.5 billion years ago, the crater was the bottom of a lake. Microbial life might have evolved in those waters, which later disappeared into soil and space. Spirit is unlikely to find specific signs of life during its planned 90-day mission, but it should be able to determine if water once flowed there, through the discovery of sedimentary rock or minerals formed by evaporative processes.

Spirit is likely to make many other discoveries as well. Once fully deployed, it will be able to travel over 125 feet each day, more distance than the mini-robot Sojourner traversed during the entire 1997 Pathfinder mission. Spirit’s sensor suite is of such sophistication that it has been compared to a Ph.D. field geologist. It will be able to transmit data at high speeds either directly to earth or through the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey satellites.

The stream of information and amazing images Spirit sends back should not overshadow the feat of engineering that put it there. Over the course of seven months, the craft traveled more than 300 million miles. It hit the planet’s atmosphere at 12,000 mph, and slowed to a stop just six minutes later with the help of a complex series of operations, including the release of its heat shield, the deployment of its parachutes and the opening of airbags, which cushioned its final landing.

Spirit’s successful landing is just one of several recent successes by NASA’s unmanned space program. On Saturday, the Stardust spacecraft successfully gathered samples of the comet Wild 2. It will return those samples of the primordial solar system to earth two years from now. Last month, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the fourth of NASA’s Great Observatories, began to provide scientists with a dazzling view of the cosmos at infrared wavelengths.

Those successes demonstrate that despite the manned space program’s current doldrums, there are plenty of individuals involved with NASA who are eager and able to rise to the challenges of the final frontier. However, summoning that spirit requires a clear vision and a specific plan. When President Bush gives his State of the Union address, Spirit will still be exploring Mars — it is likely to have been joined by its sister craft Opportunity. The names of both craft epitomize the current state of NASA’s manned program. The spirit exists to send men to the moon or to Mars. The opportunity awaits. All that is needed is the vision and the plan.

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