Why We Honor Men of Letters in the Rocks and Dust of Mars

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Author Ray Bradbury's poem is an example of the contributions writers, artists, and musicians make to our scientific pursuits. 

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On the rocky, barren terrain of Mars, tens of millions of miles away, there sit craters, landing sites, and rocky outcrops named after humans (mountains, on the other hand, can only bear Latin names). Many honor scientists, the people whose work has directly and indirectly brought our rovers to the planet, our satellites into its orbit. There's a hill and an outcrop named after a NASA scientists who worked on the Mars missions, and craters bearing the names da Vinci, Copernicus, Halley. These are the men on whose shoulders the NASA rovers stand.

But when NASA moved this week to name the site of the Curiosity rover's landing, it didn't pick a man of science for the honor; it chose a man of letters, Ray Bradbury, who passed away this past June. Bradbury isn't alone; Mars has craters named after science-fiction writers H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov. Mercury also has its share of craters honoring writers and artists including Gustav Holst, composer of the suite "The Planets."

There can be no better justification for Bradbury's honor than this video of him reading his poem, "If Only We Had Taller Been," at Caltech in 1971. I've watched this videos dozens if not a hundred times, and every time it brings me a sense of awe for the feat of sending our man-made creations so far from our planet.

Space exploration needs scientists. It also needs people like Ray Bradbury, people who can remind us who we are and where we're going.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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