When will you get a chance to visit Mars? Who knows -- but your name could easily make its way onto the very next mission. By visiting the Sign
Up For Mars Web site, you can give NASA your name and let space agency officials burn it onto a CD-ROM that will be carried to the Red Planet on the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander. John Lee, a program analyst for the Mars 2001 mission, expects to collect "3 to 4 million names at a minimum."
A similar CD was carried on last year's Mars 98 Polar Lander -- but only school-age kids could participate. Over 932,000 kids' names were collected, and Lee says that quite a few adults wanted in on it, too. Now they're getting their chance. Within a day of announcing the new CD on a NASA mailing list, nearly 9,000 people signed up to have their names rocketed into space in April 2001. Lee says adults are as excited as kids about the names CD, if not more so. In fact, he's been hearing from kids who don't want their names sent to Mars, but who have been added to the CD by "overzealous uncles." Some kids are afraid that the CD will be used by Martians to compile an invasion hit list.
The kids have little to worry about: Because of the high radiation levels on Mars -- the planet has no atmospheric shield like Earth's ozone layer -- the data on the CD will be damaged beyond recognition within a few days of landing. NASA could construct a radiation-proof case for the CD, but "the added cost to the mission would be considerable." Instead, the agency will let the CD destruct and will leave its remains on Mars.
The Mars 2001 Lander is part of NASA's new philosophy of "Faster, Better, Cheaper," which attempts to generate maximum scientific returns at a minimum of cost. The mission will carry a number of experiments specifically designed to aid a future human visit to Mars. Most notable is a system devised to create rocket fuel out of materials readily available in the Martian environment, a procedure suggested in the 1996 Robert Zubrin book, "The Case for Mars."
But until the day when tourists can head off to the Red Planet, the name CDs will give everyday people a chance to send a bit of themselves to Mars. Lee expects that the name lists could become a regular part of NASA missions, at least those with an element of public interest.
"We'd like to do this on the Europa mission," Lee says. (Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, will be the target of an upcoming mission to look for extraterrestrial life.) "Humans have a natural inclination to be explorers," he says. By adding one's name to the 2001 Lander CD, Lee purports, "you can be a part of the exploration."
At least for a few days after landing.