- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

Hang gliding on Mars may seem a bit unlikely, but you can do it now.

OK, OK, virtual hang gliding. But it’s still an amazing thing to do.

Background: NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, now orbiting Mars, carries a camera with very high resolution, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment.

It has been taking pictures of the same places on Mars from slightly different angles, collecting 3-D views. From these, the agency has put together video clips in which the viewer seems to be swooping and turning above Martian hills and canyons. (The clips are at www.nasa.gov under “Video Feature.” They last about 30 seconds.)

I’ve seen artist’s conceptions in video form of what it would be like to be on Mars, but NASA has the real thing. The motion of “flying” provides a feeling of reality that still photos can’t begin to match. You feel the size and depth of craters and so on.

I think it’s breathtaking — especially since to my knowledge, Mars is nowhere near Washington, and nobody has ever been there. Besides, you can’t hang glide on Mars. Not enough air.

In a sense, these videos are the best things to come out of the various space programs. The scientific data have been fascinating, yes. The still photos are impressive. But what I think the public mostly wants to know is, “What would it be like to be up there? Suppose you had a helicopter on Mars. Or a dirt bike.

“What would you see?” These clips begin to answer that question.

There have always been two schools of thought regarding the question, “Why bother with going to other planets?” One answer has been scientific: for data on geological structure (how the atmosphere works, whether there is water and so on).

Interesting, but dry.

The other has been the romance of it, the poetry, the sense of going to exotic places. It appeals to the imagination, which people tend to have a lot of. This, I think, is the driving force behind the desire to send astronauts to Mars.

The problem is that, realistically speaking, the human race probably isn’t going to go to Mars in the lifetime of anyone now alive. We got to the moon in 1969 and nobody has gone back since. The International Space Station bores almost everybody who has heard of it. The money for an expedition to Mars isn’t there.

What we’ve got is unmanned probes. These days, they work fine. They are cheap enough that nobody complains much. So, if we want to know what planets are really like, we have to do it with unmanned vehicles.

Now, if you think that the sheer adventure of it is as valuable as knowing the percentage of silica in the Martian soil, then the you-are-there video is a splendid idea. I would like to see more of it and not just from the air.

What do Mars rovers like Spirit and Opportunity see as they creep along? What does the Martian wind sound like? From a purely scientific point of view, such things are without value. But people are not purely scientific. Yes, the technical difficulty is substantial. Anything resembling real video produces huge files, and data rates from other planets are low.

Still, NASA has just proved it can do it.

There is something charming in the thought of a child in a small town in Paraguay sitting in a cyber-cafe and flying through the canyons of another planet. I’ll spring for the taxes.

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