Today, 2008-05-26, the Phoenix Probe began sending pictures back from Mars. Yup, more rocks and dust. So continues the search for extraterrestrial life.
You know, Mars started out as a GOD for us. An angry red god moving through the heavens. Then, we figured out it was a planet, just like ours. We saw great canals built by grand civilisations. Then, we realised that Mars didn't have canals, and that it was really dry and cold. So, we sent probes to see what it was like on the surface. What did we see: rocks and dust. So, we sent more probes to drive around. What did they find: rocks, dust, and signs that water was around in the past. So, we sent another probe, this time to dig into what we think is buried ice. What will we see? Maybe, best case, chemistry that indicates microbial life exists. Probably, given Mar's history, we'll find out that there was once enough liquid water, that hung around long enough, so that life might have had a chance to evolve.
So, we've gone from God, to civilisations, to visible life, to microbial life, to past microbial life, to the conditions where microbial life might have once possibly evolved. When the Viking probes landed, we were wondering if some Martian dog would walk by and piss on the lander's leg. Now, we're hoping to see chemistry that indicates microscopic fossils. It's pretty sad when you think about it. Sure, there's enough interesting stuff to keep an uber-geek scientist excited, but for the rest of us? For most of us, the probes are the most interesting stuff on Mars. Imagine what Columbus would have thought if he came to the new world and found nothing but rocks and dust?
No wonder humans have gone from massive programs to budget exploration. The return on investment just isn't there anymore. I don't expect Mars will really be interesting again until we have the technology to lift massive amounts of material into orbit on the cheap. Then, colonising Mars will be possible; then, there will be something interesting on it... Us.
But, for now, you have to admit, the probes are pretty cool.