US storms back to the last frontier

Mars landing sparks patriotic new interest in space journeys, both real and slightly fictional

This time last year Americans were basking in the reflected glory of Independence Day, a cinematic War of the Worlds for the Nineties, in which the US led Planet Earth to victory over diabolical space invaders to the strains of the national anthem. Tonight, as celebratory fireworks light the sky "from sea to shining sea", that triumphalist version of Independence Day will seem almost real.

After nearly a decade of introspection following the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, America is rediscovering space as a field of patriotic endeavour, and a leaner, wiser Nasa is on its way to rehabilitation. One sign of the new confidence has been the billing of today's planned landing on Mars by the Pathfinder spaceship. All being well, its parachute-slowed landing will be shown live on television, with the peeling open of its sides and the emergence of a small robot designed to plot the terrain.

After a seven-month journey, Pathfinder should make its arrival in time for brunch in New York and breakfast in Los Angeles, the first Earth visitor to Mars since the Viking missions of the Seventies. As one newspaper put it, luxuriating in the anticipated spectacle, Mars will be "invaded by Earth".

If the pictures transmitted from the Red Planet are fuzzy or intermittent, television producers can intersperse them with sharp images broadcast live, by a new technique, from the space shuttle Columbia, which defied a thunderstorm to launch earlier this week and is now in orbit. News bulletins show astronauts floating around their capsule in images that could come from a Cold War propaganda film. The contrast between this and the daily more pessimistic bulletins on the crippled Mir Russian space-station could not be greater.

Back at home, life is imitating space come to Earth in the New Mexico town of Roswell, whose population trebled this week for a UFO fest to mark the 50th anniversary of an event (real or mythical) that put it on the map. To believers, who include former Pentagon official Philip Corso, whose recent book was judged damaging enough for the Air Force to issue a 230-page rebuttal, it is not only earthlings who are attracted by Roswell's charms. Col Corso and the others know a team of little grey men took to their flying saucer back in 1947 but crashed a few miles outside the town some time around Independence Day.

Col Corso, whose deadpan style and rank lend authority to his story, says the military not only spirited the wreckage away and lied to the public but also exploited the aliens' technology. Lasers, cyber-optics and the Stealth bomber are among the results, he says. Always, though, it has been the fate of the "aliens" as much as the innovative spaceship or the alleged official cover-up that has worried Americans. Whether or not the creatures existed, there is a general feeling that America did badly by them.

This Independence Day, the spirit of believers at Roswell and televiewing followers of Pathfinder will be a charitable: "We come in peace". Americans, however, still do not trust the government to deliver that message. While an anniversary survey showed 35 per cent of those asked accepted that aliens landed at Roswell, a bare 25 per cent said they believed last week's denial by the Air Force.

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