For several days now, Americans have been in the throes of Mars-mania. Schoolchildren are constructing models of the cute little Mars rover, Sojourner. Mattel's "Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack Set" is a hot ticket in toy stores. Intrigued scientists are staying up late to get satellite intercepts of live NASA broadcasts.
Officials at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., figure that in the first five days of exploration on Mars, Internet Web sites carrying official NASA releases took 265 million hits. Sometimes the primary JPL site and 17 reflector sites around the world were so jammed that transmissions slowed, and Mars fans could not get onto a site at all.
Some of this interest is provoked by the desire to find out whether life exists on Mars. But though the absence of little green men may have been a disappointment for some, there remains for most a tremendous thrill in exploring another world and legitimate pride in this latest American achievement of penetrating a new frontier in space.
This is compounded by the new technologies that enable us to see such wonders as the exploration of Mars as they happen. Because of CNN and satellite technology we've come to expect to see drama in space (or wars abroad) live and in color. And most of the time we do.
Thus, it is ironic that, despite the availability of these new instruments that aid our quest for truth and knowledge, some Americans seem determined to remain bogged down in myth and misperception.
Even as Sojourner was peeling away myths about Mars, townsfolk in Roswell, N.M., were perpetuating the story that extraterrestrial beings crashed their spacecraft there 50 years ago and that the military had been engaged for half a century in a widespread coverup.
Ever since skeptics maintained that the Earth was flat and not round, our society has been plagued by doubters and conspiracy theorists. Who really killed President Kennedy? Does Elvis still live? Perhaps Hitler too? Isn't the United Nations trying to take over America? The dark suspicions of the gullible have been pandered to by the likes of Oliver Stone, with quirky and distorted docudramas disguised as history.
In part, the perpetuation of the spacecraft myth in Roswell is tongue in cheek. Townsfolk have spawned a tourist industry around it and did well from the thousands of visitors who flocked there earlier this month for the 50th anniversary of the supposed event, snapping up mugs, T-shirts, and other memorabilia.
But there are genuine believers still, despite an exhaustive Air Force investigation that recently culminated in a 231-page report explaining that no such spacecraft landed, and no such space aliens arrived.
The "spacecraft" that crashed was in fact an Air Force balloon used in a top-secret program, Project Mogul, intended to monitor the atmosphere for evidence of Soviet nuclear tests. The "aliens" were dummies dropped in the experiment. But still there is talk of aliens treated in military hospitals at the time, then whisked quickly away, even though those who manned the hospitals are emphatic that nothing like that took place. And there are townsfolk who, with straight faces, maintain that they have voyaged three and four times in visiting spaceships since.
It is a sad commentary on our society that at a time when technology and modern science are stripping away many of the mysteries of space, such nonsense should be perpetuated. Perhaps there is some kind of life elsewhere in the universe, but its emissaries did not come to Roswell, N.M., in 1947.
Some people question the utility of America's expensive space exploration. That is a vision limited to what can be seen and touched on earth. How can anyone not want to know what's out there, any more than America's early pioneers and explorers could not have wanted to know what lay beyond the seaboard?
But the quest is better served by the exciting, yet clinical exploration of the kind now afoot on Mars, than by foolish speculation about clandestine alien visits, fueled by the current wave of space-alien movies.
* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.