In the evenings, when my particular piece of Earth has turned away from the Sun, and is exposed instead to the rest of the cosmos, I sit in front of a keyboard, log on, and seek out the windows that look down at the planets and out at the stars. It's a markedly different experience from looking at reproductions on paper. What I see is closer to the source. In fact, it's indistinguishable from the source. These are images that have never registered on a negative. Like the Internet itself, they are products of a digitized era. Over the past couple of years I've been monitoring the long rectangular strips of Martian surface being beamed across the void, in a steady stream of zeroes and ones, from the umbrella-shaped high-gain antenna of the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. These pictures are so fresh that their immediacy practically crackles. Call it "chrono-clarity." That bluish wispy cloud, for example, hovering over the Hecates Tholus volcano, which rears above the pockmarked surface of the Elysium Volcanic Region in the Martian eastern hemisphere—it has barely had time to disperse before I, or anyone with Internet access, can see it in all its spooky beauty. The volcano emerges from the pink Martian desert, which looks organic and impressionable—like human skin, or the surface of a clay pot before firing. The tenuous cloud floats near the volcano's mouth, as if in prelude to an eruption. It's a picture composed of millions of dots and dashes of data, produced by a transmission technique just a few steps removed from Morse code; but it reveals a landscape the likes of which Samuel Morse, let alone the ranks of Earth-based astronomers who have surveyed the planets since well before Babylonian times, could scarcely have envisioned.
In case there was any doubt, many of those good old science-fiction predictions from the 1950s and the 1960s are coming true. "NEW SQUAD OF ROBOTS READY TO ASSAULT MARS" read a 1998 headline in the online Houston Chronicle, stirring submerged memories of my adolescent readings of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot stories. But Asimov's sentient robots were frequently confused. Something always seemed to be going wrong with them, and the mayhem that followed could inevitably be traced back to a programming error by their human handlers—a situation not unfamiliar to those running NASA's Mars program, which was temporarily grounded after a catastrophic pair of failures in late 1999. (The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost owing to the stark failure by one group of engineers to translate another group's figures into metric units of measurement, and the Mars Polar Lander because for some unfathomable reason its landing gear hadn't been adequately tested.)
Links to related material on other Web sites.
Mars Exploration Homepage
Information about the planet and current exploratory missions. Posted by NASA.
For all their formidable prescience, Asimov and his contemporaries Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein didn't quite conjure up that still-startling compound of populist forum, deep archive, and global amphitheater called the Internet. I picture a packed arena of Romans, teeming and kaleidoscopic, at the height of the empire. They're savoring the gods'-eye view, watching the Red Planet turn. Would they have seen it as territory to conquer? Would they have sent in the legions? Mars, after all, was named after the Roman god of war, the father of Romulus and Remus. And what about our age—which way, in the end, will we go? "Earth is the cradle of the mind," said the pioneering Russian space-flight theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. "But we cannot live in a cradle forever."