National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 16, 2004

A moment of awe and mystery

How good it felt. The flawless landing of Spirit on Mars last week was a moment that transcended political, cultural and religious divides. It cheered scientists and united a nation in a feeling of genuine accomplishment.

Within minutes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began receiving the first images from Spirit’s cameras and the world was treated to multiple images that formed a sweeping panorama of the Martian landscape.

“This just keeps getting better and better. The pictures are fantastic,” said the mission science manager, John Callas, reflecting a shared sense of satisfaction and awe.

Spirit’s successful landing bucked a trend of failed missions to the Red Planet. Just one in three past attempts to land on Mars has succeeded.

The Spirit rover, named by a 9-year-old from Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of two identical, six-wheeled robots expected to roam the planet for 90 days, analyzing rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether Mars was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.

The mission is to explore an area of the planet thought to have been filled with flowing water some 2 billion years ago. If evidence of water is found, it is postulated, then conditions supportive of life might also have been possible.

The immediate mystery: Did life as we know it ever exist in another part of our solar system? The larger mystery: Are we alone in the universe or is there life out there somewhere else?

Moments ago in galactic time, we believed the earth to be the center of creation. Later, we thought the sun to be the center of the universe. We now know countless galaxies exist, each containing hundreds of millions of stars and an infinite number of planets.

It is all quite humbling, a reminder that our knowledge is both finite and precious.

In a time of war and much planetary abuse, at a time when seemingly little progress is being made in solving the ills of our ways, it is helpful to remember we share common dreams -- and sometimes they are even realized.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004

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