December 2005. UK terrestrial station Channel 4 launches Space Cadets – a novel TV show documenting the recruitment, training, and final launch into space of four members of the general public. Four people who courageously stepped forward, subjected themselves to intensive physical and mental training, and who were finally shot into space as fully fledged astronauts.
The reality – they never left Earth! Described as the most elaborate hoax ever perpetrated in television history, they spent the entire time onboard a sophisticated simulator located within a makeshift TV studio fixed firmly on planet Earth (specifically RAF Bentwaters). The views from the ‘spacecraft’ windows exposed sophisticated computer generated images of outer space, photo-realistic enough to fool the people aboard the simulator they had actually launched into outer space and were now in orbit around planet Earth!
Were they really deceived? Opinions are divided on the matter. My own opinion – I’m not truly convinced either way. However, as the host of the show Johnny Vaughan reiterated throughout the series – why wouldn’t they believe it? They were flown to Russia (from their perspective), made to undertake a genuine four week intensive training program, and once on board the simulator immersed in a totally convincing environment including a well prepared simulated launch from Earth (momentary sound cut-off during takeoff notwithstanding). There was at least an appearance of an environment convincing enough to conceivably perpetuate the illusion of a genuine space flight.
August 5th 2012. NASA has one of its most tense moments in history – the final seven minutes of an eight month long journey from Earth to Mars of the unmanned Mars rover Curiosity. Those final moments held numerous perils for the space probe now entering the Mars atmosphere, hurtling towards the planet’s surface at seven times the speed of sound. A slight deviation from the intended trajectory, a freak solar wind, a massive Mars dust storm, any one of these things and a myriad others potentially ending in one cruel stroke eight years of hard work and 2.5 billion dollars of sophisticated NASA hardware. But on this day the gods were smiling on NASA. The Curiosity space probe makes it, landing safely on the surface of Mars. The words “touchdown confirmed” enough to send all personnel at NASA control room into a total frenzy, with much skipping, dancing and hugging ensuing (and no doubt a later all out piss up we didn’t see).
This is not the first space probe to reach the surface of Mars however. In fact the Russians beat NASA to it way back in 1971 with the successful landing of the Soviet lander module Mars 3 (although it didn’t last very long after landing – a couple of minutes I think it was). And since that time there has been a number of other successful NASA missions to the Mars surface – lander modules Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976, and the first ever Mars rover Sojourner in 1997. The Mars rover was a sophisticated robot designed to navigate the surface of Mars, as opposed to the lander modules that simply stood fixed in the landing position until a dust storm blew them away or something.
So what is all the excitement about at NASA, considering this has all been done before? Well the Curiosity Mars rover is a whole different beast of a machine, with capabilities extending well beyond any of its predecessors. It is nothing short of a full blow fully equipped walking space laboratory. Sure, the other rovers and landers could take pictures and snatch up a few bits of soil here or there for analysis and stuff, but Curiosity is an entirely different species of robot – in relative terms a bit like comparing Decepticon leader Megatron to the Daleks of Doctor Who. Curiosity has enough paraphernalia onboard to keep it busy performing soil samples, rock analysis, atmospheric tests and so forth for around a decade. It even uses Twitter to communicate to Earth, which it promptly took advantage of upon arrival on the red planet by courteously tweeting to NASA “I’m safely on the surface of Mars” (I hear it will be providing a review on TripAdvisor next). It even has onboard lasers to blast away at rocks from several metres away to check mineral composition and the such like (and probably a little ray gun to whip out in the event of encountering hostile alien life forms). If there is life on Mars, or ever was, we will know about it soon enough.
There is one mystery however. Why hasn’t NASA taken the opportunity to pull off what would be undoubtedly one of the most amazing and daring pranks of all time? Surely it must be slightly tempting for them, as an April fool’s day prank perhaps, to pretend they have been receiving images from Mars showing a Martian civilization. To make it all the more compelling they could even commission a major effects company such as ILM to create photo-realistic CGI renderings of monster aliens roaming around the surface of the planet. To pull this off would surpass even the brilliant hoax space trip mentioned above, which fooled four people into believing they were in orbit around the Earth whilst all the time they were in a TV studio.
But would people really fool for such a thing? History suggests they most likely would. On the night of 30th October 1938 millions of Americans tuned into their radios to hear an announcement that a Martian invasion of Earth was underway. As news came of terrifying battles taking place across the Eastern seaboard of the United States thousands of Americans fled their homes in panic, convinced that America was under invasion by men from Mars. In New Jersey, allegedly the site of the first landings, the roads were gridlocked with thousands of cars fleeing to the hills. In New York City crowds poured from restaurants and theatres as word of the ongoing Martian invasion spread like wildfire. Troopers phoned their admin HQs to volunteer to defend America. Even the US navy was fooled! Sailors were ordered back to their ships to make a last stand against the invaders!
What was it exactly the people were reacting to? A radio play of HG Well’s War of the Worlds narrated by a brilliant 24 year old actor by the name of Orson Welles. Due to previous poor ratings Orson Welles decided to crank up the tension a bit by formatting the radio show in the form of realistic sounding news bulletins of an ongoing Martian invasion. The entire time he was standing in the radio studio narrating the play he was completely oblivious to the chaos he was causing across the width and breadth of America.
This was many years ago however. Perhaps people were more gullible back then than they are now? I’m not convinced of this however. In 1999 I remember a movie being released called The Blair Witch Project. The movie terrified cinema audiences all across America, even though the film itself was not particularly frightening. The reason – cinema audiences across the states believed they were seeing genuine footage of real life events rather than a work of fiction produced by cheeky and daring teenagers who instigated a viral campaign on the internet to generate the urban myth the film was actual footage of real events that had simply been picked up from a forest someplace. Although this was admittedly not on the same scale as the mass panic caused by Orson Welles in 1938, it nonetheless revealed an American public still prepared to buy into almost anything, providing a semblance of authenticity was presented, however superficial and unlikely that veneer of authenticity might be.
What about the real possibility of life on Mars? Just how feasible is this? Realistically not very likely. The environment is just too hostile. It has an atmosphere comprised mostly of carbon dioxide, little protection from cosmic rays, and a bit chilly to say the least with average temperatures well below the zeroes. Having said that they have however found traces of methane, a gas often associated with the metabolic processes of biological organisms. So the jury is still out on whether there currently exists life on Mars. The slight possibility exists, even if it is only some form of microbial life here or there.
But what about the past? That is perhaps a different ball game. The general scientific consensus has it that during some period in the past the planet was much more hospitable to life. There is certainly substantial evidence that large amounts of liquid water were flowing over the surface of Mars at some point, and most likely for extended periods of time. And as we are all constantly told by the scientific folk – water is synonymous with life. For liquid water to exist in abundance as seems the case, Mars would have needed to experience a considerably warmer climate than it does today, and also sufficient atmospheric pressure to allow water to exist in liquid form in the first place. This would entail a far denser atmosphere than currently exists on Mars, another parameter favourable to life. However we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that conditions being conducive with life doesn’t actually mean in itself there was ever any life up there.
At times scientists tend to become a bit frisky when presented with new data which has the merest suggestion of a molecule or two bonding together to form some kind of simple compound. Take for instance the fiasco of 1994 when a meteorite found in Antarctica a decade previously, dubbed (rather cryptically) ALH 84001, was suddenly realized to have come from Mars. This promptly initiated a frenzy of scientific analysis, the rock quickly being subjected to lasers, radiation, chemicals, and all manner of other things to elicit information from it, with the firm intention of finding some signs of microbial life. Sure enough something soon popped up. Very quickly the worldwide headline news became incredible discovery: life on Mars (or something like that). The reality behind all the hype – a single strand of carbonate that just happened to take on the outline shape of some Earthly strain of bacteria (embarrassing or what!)
Of course the existence of such a compound on Mars is quite significant, and for what its worth scientists do appear fairly certain the compound was in fact synthesized on Mars and not on Earth. But it certainly isn’t of itself a living organism. It is still only a carbonate, just as it would be if it had formed here on Earth.
But it has to be admitted that past life on Mars is a very real possibility, given the nature of what the conditions were like up there prior to now. But I guess we will just have to wait and see what Curiosity digs up. Bring on the next tweet!
But whatever the case I still think NASA should not pass up the opportunity of pulling off the prank of a lifetime. By all means continue taking soil samples and conducting chemical and geological tests and so forth. But for goodness sake exploit the public’s susceptibility for believing in monsters from outer space. And lets have a good laugh at our own gullibility.
After all if George Bush was able to manipulate public fear on the scale he managed to then why not NASA?