Mars trip: Making mountain out of a pile of rocks?

By MATT CRENSON

Associated Press

PASADENA, Calif After spending the July Fourth weekend gaga over the first pictures from Mars in two decades, some Americans are beginning to ask: What's the big deal?

In picture after picture from NASA's Mars Pathfinder, the planet looks just as it did when the Viking missions landed there in 1976 - rocky, barren and red.

The only sign that Pathfinder is providing anything beyond entertainment value comes from the mission scientists, who assure us that they're seeing a place unlike any they've ever seen before.

"What interests me is how much it costs. What do we get from it besides "Wow, this is neat'? Sure, it's a big deal, but what is it doing for me?" Natalie Karp, 34, of Los Angeles, asked at the Glendale Galleria shopping mall.

"To the casual person, it just looks like rocks," acknowledged Allan Treiman, a research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Even one of the mission scientists, in an unguarded moment, likened the landscape to that of Tucson - a much more prosaic and less expensive destination than Mars. (The Pathfinder mission cost an estimated $266 million.)

To the layman, Pathfinder has made excellent television, with teary-eyed mission controllers jumping up and down, excited scientists spouting technical terms and dramatic martian land- But the mission's scientific significance is much less exciting. The great variety of rocks that has geologists agog looks pretty uniform to the average person.

And the Sojourner rover, the center of attention, is not exactly the wild ride that its advance press indicated. The six-wheeled vehicle is puny, about the size of a toy wagon, and moves at a rate of 2 feet a minute - top speed. After three days on Mars, it had covered no more than 10 feet.

To scientists, of course, it's a dream, because it can wheel up to those rocks and determine their chemical composition - something Viking couldn't do. That information is crucial to answering the life-on-Mars question.

"I think the chemical analysis of these rocks will be of tremendous importance to understanding martian geology," said John Kerridge, a visiting scholar at the University of California at San Diego and a prominent life-on-Mars skeptic. "Pathfinder is going to be a very useful step on the path to understanding whether life ever evolved on Mars or not."

John Pike, director of the Space Policy Center at the Federation of American Scientists, said the way he sees it, NASA's public relations apparatus and the major media collaborated to pump up Pathfinder's news value on a slow holiday weekend.

"I would say that some of the reporting or headlining has been a bit more breathless than has been warranted," Pike said Tuesday. "News production organizations, having invested all of the resources in deploying people out there to cover the story, are certainly not going to downplay the significance of that investment."

Not even Hollywood could have come up with a flood like the one described Monday, a del uge of biblical proportions that swept across Mars billions of years ago.

The floods weren't much of a scientific surprise - scientists have known about Mars' ancient torrents for 20 years - but it was fun. People have flocked to public lectures on the Pathfinder mission, and logged into Internet sites by the millions to see pictures of the red planet.

And it was cheap fun, NASA hastens to point out. Even if you highball the cost of the Pathfinder mission, it comes in at not much more than a dollar per American. People will pay eight times that much to see fake dinosaurs eat character actors.

Nowadays, science is more of a performance art, Pike said.

"Science is one of the things that humans do. Science is not a goal by itself," said Chris McKay, a NASA scientist who has advocated human Mars missions for decades. "They never say why in "Star Trek' they're seeking out new worlds, they just take it as a given that people will want to seek it out.

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This page last updated on April 5, 2001.