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Western Press Review: Also This Week, Earth Robot Invades Mars

Prague, 10 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - While pundits and commentators fixed their eyes on Madrid's NATO summit this week, U.S. space explorers were trundling a robot explorer vehicle around the surface of Mars and Russian scientists were completing a rescue supply mission to the space station Mir. Some recent Western press commentary draws lessons about the differing natures of Russians and Americans.

TIMES OF LONDON: While U.S. Discovers, Russia Embarrassed

Tim Hames commented Saturday: "Americans are extraordinary people. Few others would send a probe through 300 million miles of space primarily to discover themselves." He wrote: "Meanwhile Russian efforts, symbolized by the embarrassing break-up of the Mir space station (last) week, continue to collapse. It is certainly true that the general future of space exploration depends upon co-operation between the two former superpower rivals. However, that point masks an important distinction. If the two nations do not collaborate, an American program of some significance will continue, albeit in a curtailed form. The future for the Russian venture is far less certain."

The commentary concluded: "While many American eyes are on Mars, (NATO) expansion will prove the smoke-screen for NATO's emasculation. Americans, a restless breed, will need a new challenge for the next century. Space provides that focus."

NEW YORK TIMES: NASA's New Approach A Triumph

In an editorial Tuesday, the newspaper exulted over the triumph NASA's new approach of seeking more modest, and more assured, successes. The newspaper editorialized: "While the space shuttle Columbia circles the Earth on a routine mission and Russian cosmonauts try desperately to repair their stricken Mir space station, the real drama in space has been occurring some 120 million miles away, on the surface of Mars."

The editorial said: "The Mars mission, the first in a series of unmanned probes to the planet over the next decade, is emblematic of a new emphasis by NASA on mounting smaller, cheaper missions whose failure would not disrupt the entire space program."

The paper concluded: "The lasting scientific importance of this mission may well be the light it sheds on geologic processes that shaped not only Mars but also the rest of the solar system. Few scientists expect to find any direct evidence that life has existed in the harsh Martian environment until a later mission returns rock samples in 2005, and maybe not even then."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Exciting Things Happening On Mars

Today's issue carries a commentary by Helmut Hornung on the U.S. technological achievement. Hornung writes: "Exciting things are happening on Mars. A solar-powered robot is crawling at a snail's pace across the red sand, stopping every few inches in front of a stone to spend 10 hours sniffing at it with state-of-the-art technology to find out what it is made of. Geologists are then ecstatic, passing theories and speculation to and fro. Does the evidence not all point to water having once flooded the surface of Mars? Or is Barnacle Bill, as the stone has been called, a left-over from a powerful volcanic eruption? The fact that it is very similar in composition to terrestrial granite has certainly come as a surprise."

Hornung writes: "The stone testifies to the tempestuous geological youth of Mars and is thus an important stone in the mosaic which research scientists are piecing together of the evolution of the red planet."

WASHINGTON POST: Mars Mission A Space-Exploration Triumph

An editorial Tuesday called the Mars mission a space-exploration triumph. The newspaper said: " 'The first watch of night is given to the red planet Mars,' wrote the American poet Longfellow. And so the search for signs of extraterrestrial life gets a great boost from a 309-million-mile jaunt to Earth's closest and most environmentally sympathetic neighbor. The triumph unfolding on the Martian surface can be scored as a ten-strike (that is, complete victory) for the battle-scarred National Aeronautics and Space Administration, from the as-advertised pinpoint Fourth of July landing to the trove of panoramic color photos now speeding through the array of '90s-vintage media outlets."

The paper continued: "The seven-month journey of Pathfinder is the first in a planned series of 10 missions to Mars over the next decade. NASA's 'faster, better and cheaper' approach to conquering space appears this summer to be winning the day."

BALTIMORE SUN: U.S. Success Contrasts Russian Disappointments

The newspaper editorialized Monday on contrasts between U.S. space success and Russian disappointments. It said: "The Independence Day landing on Mars of the U.S. spacecraft Pathfinder signifies not only how far the American space program has come, but the depths to which the once-superior Russian program has fallen. This accomplishment was supposed to be shared with the people who awed Americans 40 years ago by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The Russians' Mars 96 probe was supposed to land on Mars, too, two months from now. But it crashed only hours after take-off last November."

"There has been a litany of problems in the Russian space program since then, including costly delays in constructing its portion of the international space station - a module that is supposed to be launched next year. And the Russian's own 10-year-old space station, Mir, was seriously damaged during a docking maneuver on June 25."

WASHINGTON POST: Mir A Tribute To Russian Ingenuity And Persistence

But in a column the same day, Fred Hiatt took an opposing perspective. He contended that Mir, with all its problems, is less a blight on Russian space exploration than it is a tribute to Russian ingenuity and persistence. Hiatt wrote: "There was something so evocative about conditions on the stricken Mir - the darkness, the cramped quarters, the bad air, the accumulating human waste. Then they announced the likely cause of the collision that led to these problems - an overloaded cargo ship - and it clicked. Of course. Just like Aeroflot."

He wrote: "Russians grew up having to trust their instincts and their ingenuity. If they were lucky enough to buy a new car, they knew it wouldn't run until they'd overhauled the engine, scrounging and improvising spare parts as best they could to fill the gaps left at the factory. It wasn't the most efficient way to run a country, but it made people resourceful.

"That same resourcefulness has kept the space program going even as it's sunk from superpower's favored child to orphan of the Soviet demise. Sure, the Mir space station is in the 11th year of a planned five-year life span. So what? There's nothing that can't be fixed with glue, spit and a little imagination."