The United States, NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech can rejoice over Sunday's successful landing on Mars of the spacecraft called Spirit. There now will be another week or so of tests before it is commanded to begin moving from its landing site to search Mars for evidence that there once was life on our nearest planetary neighbor.

Meanwhile, space buffs, many of whom are known for particularly active and vivid imaginations, see another possibility based on the fact that during the past three years, several American and British robotic explorers have reached Mars only to fall silent, refusing to communicate with their masters on Earth.

There is no reason to believe that it will happen to Spirit. Should it happen, however, it would be a terrible blow to the international scientific community. So strained is the U.S. Treasury that it seems unlikely that more millions of dollars will be available soon for further interplanetary exploration.

In far-reaching contrast to this gloom, those space buffs with unlimited imagination might fix on the possibility that the failure of previous robotic explorers could provide evidence that there is today highly intelligent life on Mars. Is it possible that, since the earlier robots landed all right but only the communications machinery failed, those green, bulbous-headed Martians simply turned off the transmitters? It would seem without question that the Martians, having observed the American/British invasion of Iraq, would be deeply concerned about the arrival on their territory of these deep-space travelers. After all, to the Martians they might appear to be suspiciously like the deadly American airborne machines that so quickly conquered and laid waste to Iraq.

If this speculation gains momentum in Washington, we can expect a flurry of activity. Almost certainly the space program will immediately be taken away from NASA and given to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice who will in turn bypass the State Department to work with British colleagues and those of the 49 other nations that make up the Iraq Coalition.

There will develop the inevitable strain between CIA Director George Tenet and the White House as Tenet seeks to protect from inadvertent or deliberate misuse by the White House whatever information his agency has of Martian intentions.

The president's chief political adviser, the powerful Karl Rove, will not decide what to leak to the press until he gets a far clearer picture of the likely effect on this November's election.

You can remember that you read all this here, after a particularly slow New Year's weekend. This columnist regrets, however, that I do not have the resources to pursue this story to the depths it might or might not deserve.

My recommendation is that interested readers -- and for the good of the nation, I hope there are many -- keep in touch with the National Enquirer, as it appears weekly at the supermarkets. Its ever-busy scientific staff for years has almost exclusively among its peers kept abreast of every development in the saga of the frequent visits to Earth of those UFOs -- unidentified flying objects -- and their little green explorers.

That's the other side of our story -- and if it suggests a Martian military, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction, it well might justify our invasion of Mars. That, in turn, will depend on which political party wins this November's presidential election.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail@cronkitecolumn.com.

c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
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