It’s hard to get excited about robots. Unless, like a singer acquaintance of mine, you have what’s termed a “clunk” fetish. Once a year or so, she asks me if I’ll write a comic about robots fucking.
I imagine she’s waiting with ragged breath for the Phoenix Lander to stab its metal cock into the Martian regolith to see if the planet is wet for it. Sometime today, I think, the robot explorer will slide a probe into the rusty crust in the search for ice and biochemical presence. We already have the photo that may show exposed Martian ice for the first time — unless it’s a photographic artifact, a trick of light and lens and no more real than the Face On Mars.
Somewhere, Robert Zubrin is chewing on his John Lennon hat in barely controlled anger, or so I like to imagine. Zubrin’s been advocating immediate human exploration of Mars for decades. He even costed out a mission, Mars Direct, using already-extant space technology, that came in at a fraction of NASA’s own estimates. Zubrin’s programme could have done it for the price of a couple of Hollywood summer tentpole movies. And, somewhere, he’s hissing that the first person off the Mars Express lander could have told us if that was ice or not. He’s had people pretending to be on Mars in simulated lander stations dropped in remote frozen locations for years.
The problems with Zubrin’s plans are many and various, of course, and begin with the fact that both deep space and the Martian environment are powerfully iniquitous to human life. Playing pretend astronauts in an FMARS tent in the frozen north is not the same as having to erect an anti-radiation shelter (or, more likely, digging yourself a Martian burrow) to ensure you don’t come home as a tumour in a spacesuit. Nor is flying to your simulator location the same as flying a spacecraft nine months out from Earth’s protective magnetic field. There is no test article for a vessel that’ll stop you taking at least twice the human rad limit on your voyage.
No-one seems to be listening to Robert Zubrin, who once allied himself with Newt Gingrich if memory serves, anymore. He plugs on with his Mars simulations with his eager faux-astronauts, and continues to hold gatherings of his Mars Society, which is taking on the pall of those other 90s groups of similar hubris like the people trying to build ocean habitats or intentional space societies. One of those, as I recall, turned themselves into something called the Living Universe Foundation and tried to buy themselves some scrubland outside Bastrop in Texas for a compound.
Maybe that’s an option for the Mars Society now. Buy some frontier land and ritually smash effigies of the radiation-hardened robot lander currently clunking away at the Martian maidenhead.