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Editorial: What lies beneath?

In terms of visual impact, the pictures beamed from Mars to Earth by the Phoenix lander aren’t exactly mesmerizing stuff. Unlike the spectacular photos of spiral galaxies and exploding stars captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, the images relayed by Phoenix after its Sunday touchdown depict a desert-like landscape sprinkled with stones and wrinkled by fissures and humps.
But then, it’s what may lurk beneath the surface of the Red Planet that makes this latest Martian probe so intriguing. With a robotic arm capable of digging into the planet’s surface and on-board lab equipment to analyze Martian materials, Phoenix will provide new clues into a mystery that has long fascinated astronomers and space buffs: Did Mars once harbor liquid water ó and perhaps give rise to some form of life?
In pursuit of answers, the United States and other nations have launched several previous Martian probes. But of 11 earlier endeavors, six ended in failure after making the journey of more than 420 million miles, including a previous polar lander that simply vanished. The engineers who worked on this mission had reason to cheer and pump their fists as Phoenix softly settled onto the Martian surface. The touchdown was the first successful soft landing on Mars ó using a parachute and rocket thrusts rather than bulky air bags ó since the twin Viking missions in 1976. Although two robot rovers from an earlier mission have been sending back data from the planet’s equatorial region for five years, Phoenix is a larger, stationary spacecraft that is designed to gather information about the northern polar region of Mars, where scientists believe ice is most likely to be present beneath the planet’s reddish crust.
While Phoenix may provide answers about Mars, many questions also linger about the future of NASA and the nation’s space program. Early in his second term, President Bush declared that America would return to the moon by 2020, as the stepping stone to a manned Martian mission some years hence. In the intervening years, however, little has occurred in the way of manned space flight, as the space agency ponders the replacement for its aging shuttle fleet and Congressional leaders warily eye the costs of future space exploration while also paying for the war in Iraq and a lengthening list of domestic infrastructure needs.
It’s notable that America’s space program rarely gets more than a passing mention among the current presidential candidates. Does that reflect the gravity of earthly issues ó or a failure to recognize the space program’s importance to mankind’s future? Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the moon. Since then, the space program has experienced stunning successes as well as heartbreaking tragedies. The successful landing of Phoenix hints at the engineering feats that a new generation of explorers and technology might achieve ó if there’s sufficient public support and visionary leadership that will keep us looking to the stars.

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