Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Greatest Field Trip Ever

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Greatest Field Trip Ever

Article excerpt

The first three months of 2004 have witnessed the most complex, expensive, and exciting field excursion in the history of our science. The paired exploration of Mars by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity has served to stir the public's imagination about science in ways not seen since the Apollo program of the late 60s and early 70s. These missions appeal to the public largely because of their focus on the search for sedimentary records that could provide evidence for the past existence of surface water on Mars. The presence of temporally persistent lakes or small seas on the Martian surface could, of course, have served as a locus for the development of extraterrestrial life. A potential, no matter how remote, that would have profound scientific and philosophical implications. Yet, the question exists in the minds of many of our students as well as the public at large, is there sufficient justification for the expense associated with planetary exploration?

While the answer to such a question may seem self-evident to those of us trained in the geological sciences, it is, in my opinion, our responsibility to explain to an increasingly skeptical public, why continued exploration of our solar system is essential. Rather than focusing a defense of the Mars missions in terms of its technical or scientific merit, I would suggest a simpler approach to dealing with doubters. There are four general arguments that could be made in support of space exploration in general and planetary missions specifically:

First, it's cool. Being able to explore the surface of another world via radio interface, to literally drive around by remote control, to conduct experiments on samples in situ is a very cool thing. It's amazing, it's fantastic. It is, in the end, fundamental to the human spirit to attempt those things that, in their accomplishment, stir our souls.

Second, it's hard. The scientific and technical problems associated with the most recent Mars missions are breathtaking in their complexity. …

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