Weekly insights into our crazy world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011



It was only last month when President Obama warned in THE STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS that the USA was having a "Sputnik Moment." This confused many Americans who have no idea what a Sputnik is. This precise minute Barack is referencing happened on October 4, 1957. This is the date when the USSR shocked the world by being the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit, thus creating a major Cold-War-chill in American pride. Americans were disgusted. "How could we let those stupid commies beat us into space?" they clamored. You know the rest of the story: The US made damn sure the Reds weren't gonna beat us the moon. And boy did we show them! All the dumb Soviets could put in space was a tin can and a dog. We put a man on the moon, YOU LENIN LOVING LOSERS! Since then, NASA has kicked cosmic ass over the whole known universe. (Or at least our solar system) GO USA!!

Well...I hate to break it to all y'all but the USA's status as 'lords of local space' is about to expire! The Russians have played second fiddle long enough! To help knock the Americans off the top, those crazy cosmonauts did something Americans hate: they collaborated with other countries. There are some new players in the space-race these days and they are well funded. The European Space Agency (ESA) boasts 18 member states has an annual budget of nearly $6 billion dollars. The Chinese Space Program is also huge and receives a large military stipend. Anyhow, these three lesser programs have combined forces to create a new, mega-agency on a mission to topple the USA. This week, they issued a challenge: Who wants to be the first to put a MAN ON MARS?

Prior to Monday, NASA owned 'bragging rights' over all other space programs when it came to Mars. In 1976, the US became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the planet. VIKING 1 and VIKING 2 first accomplished this feat when they orbited and then landed on the red planet a good two years before the Russians. Next, in 1997, the Americans landed the MARS PATHFINDER on the surface. With six really cool wheels, it was able to move about to study the odd rocks and gravel. (Previous Russian models had failed to accomplish this feat.) And in 2003, NASA landed an even better probe. With solar powered panels on top, it's been driving all over Mars, sending back high-tech Martian images for seven years straight.

Yet all these high tech gadgets would be no match for having a human walk on the surface of Mars and planting a flag, a la Neil Armstrong. And that's just what this new organization is set to do. On Monday, the doors of the Mission Control Moscow were thrown up to international journalists to show off their latest success: A large wing of the institute has been converted into the simulated surface of Mars. The conditions are just like the surface of Mars: frigid and frightening. Two cosmonauts, a Russian and an Italian, walked across the forbidden land and planted three flags (Russian, Chinese and the EU) to symbolize their future plans.

While officials at NASA and the British space agency no doubt laughed at some goofy scientists jumping up and down in a red-colored sandpit in a Moscow suburb, other aspects of the operation are impressive. It's named MARS500, after the five-hundred day mission it hopes to accomplish: 220 days to fly to Mars, 30 days on the surface, and 250 days to go back. Right now, the focus is on how humans could remain cooped up in a capsule for so long. To see if people would really go crazy, they locked eight astronauts in a tiny metal room for the last nine months. To the relief of all, they did not kill each other!

It's hard to say when, if ever, a person will walk on Mars. NASA predicts it will occur in 2037, the MARS500 project is shooting for 2040. But one thing is perfectly clear: The World needs to combine forces to reach the goal. This means all national space agencies (even the dreaded Iranian Space Agency) need to work together to accomplish anything. Think of all the research that is being needlessly duplicated. Think of all the multiple space crafts being built around the globe. But most of all, think of what we would have to tell the Man From Mars when we finally meet him: "I'm from the joint-Euro-Sino-Russian federation." Or simply: "I'm from there!" (Point to earth.)

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