It's pretty heady stuff, landing the Phoenix Mars lander on the Red Planet. After traveling 10 months and 422 million miles, Phoenix on Sunday gave scientists a glimpse of the Martian arctic plains. The lander is scheduled to dig for 90 days, hopefully to determine whether the polar region has the right stuff for life to emerge.

The universe is a vast place, so it makes sense that we explore the planet of one of our closest neighbors. At some point, a manned mission to Mars is planned. It's like science fiction coming to life.

I've never placed much stock in the "little green man" notion of Mars. The universe is such a vast expanse that it would be arrogant, on our part, to imagine we're the only intelligent life form out there. And why do we suppose they're green, anyway?

I must confess, though, I am somewhat unnerved by the prospect of other life forms out there. If we're curious about them, surely they're wondering what we do on the Blue Marble.

My deep fear is that we're already their nightly entertainment. "Hey, family. Let's watch 'Planet Earth Reality,' tonight. Let's see what those wacky Earthlings are up to today."

They would have a million questions, I'm sure. They'd wonder why we have so much time to interact with gadgets but so little time for face-to-face interaction.

They may wonder why we're so utterly dependent upon fossil fuels. For all we know, they solely rely on renewable energy. Imagine how different our world politics would be if oil wasn't in the picture. Or how much cleaner the environment would be if we weren't so bent on burning carbon.

This doesn't scratch the surface of how we, on this smallish planet in a great big universe, can't seem to get along. We're divided by religion, tribalism, economics, gender, race, you name it.

Perhaps if we began to think of ourselves as Earthlings, perhaps we could do something meaningful about threats to our planet. It will take all of us. We should do all we know to do but it sometimes feels like spitting in the wind to dutifully recycle the garbage, ride mass transit, use compact fluorescent light bulbs and buy reusable grocery bags to come to find out that our national parks are polluted by heavy metals traveling the jet stream from Asia.

This doesn't mean we stop trying. But I don't understand (and surely our Martian friends don't understand), why we insist on acting at cross-purposes when it comes to the welfare of every man, woman and child who lives on Earth.

On the other hand, I think Martians might be impressed by our humanity. When disaster strikes anywhere on Earth, governments, nonprofit aid agencies and churches across the globe are quick to lend a hand.

When the United States suffered the attacks on its homeland on Sept. 11, 2001, our nation grieved for a long time. We were not alone in our sorrow. When people in other nations conducted memorial observances on our behalf, it was a salving balm for our broken hearts.

We are now in a war in Iraq. Our troops remain in harm's way in Afghanistan. I wonder if other planets wage war among tribes or species. I fear we are the only people who behave this way, that somehow, the inhabitants of these other planets have smarter ways to resolve conflict.

Another possibility is that they're looking to us for answers. Perhaps they're in worse shape than we are. Perhaps they have never contemplated messy conventions such as democracy or liberty. Perhaps they don't know about simple public health measures such as chlorinating drinking water, managing sewage or controlling insects that cause diseases such as malaria. Perhaps they don't have enough to eat or a means to educate their people so these advancements can occur.

Who knows. I'm excited by the prospect of learning more about the Red Planet. But I can't help but wonder what we would do if the tables were turned. What if a Martian Earth probe landed in our backyard? Would we let it go about the business of collecting data and earth, soil and water samples?

Or would we destroy it, for fear it could contaminate us or that it is weaponized? It's something to think about as Phoenix begins its exciting work.


Marjorie Cortez, who would err on the side of welcoming life from other planets, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com.