Mars Rover Curiosity


by John Johnson

A few weeks ago, we got to witness one of the most remarkable achievements of our lifetime. Millions watched as a group of American men and women, dressed in patriotic uniforms, laughed, cheered and cried as goals were met, dreams fulfilled and the future was glimpsed.

Yes!! We landed a car on Mars!

The men and women at JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) will mostly be nameless faces, unlike the Olympic champions whose faces will garner cereal boxes, Subway commercials and magazine covers. We may only ever call them Soft Sulu, Fit Michael Maden, Let Himself Go Matthew Perry, Not Felicia Day and the Flute Player from Kansas, but we won’t forget the overwhelming emotions they displayed as everything they have been working towards became a reality. It was a perfect moment. You can relive it with the video below.

The Mars Rover Curiosity landed on the surface of another planet a little before 1:30 a.m. on the East Coast. It took fourteen minutes for any information from the vehicle to reach Earth. Within moments, pictures were being sent back through its orbiting sister satellite, Mars Odyssey. The aptly-named Curiosity landed in Gale Crater and will begin its missions: determine the geology of the planet, search for biosignatures (which isn’t as immediately cool as it sounds), determine the atmospheric evolution of the planet, examine the cycling processes of water and carbon dioxide and study the radiation levels on the planet surface.

Yes, the space nerd can rejoice; science isn’t dead!

These thrilling, affirming moments are few and far between. Manned exploration of space is not something NASA is pursuing. Scientific exploration is being limited at every turn. The unbridled joy of last night is made great because it is no longer the norm.

In 2004, we landed Curiosity’s twin brothers on surface of mars, and were treated to a similar landing night scene. Spirit and Opportunity were much smaller models and our first moving vehicles on the planet’s surface. Tasked with a simple three month mission to collect information on Martian geology, they gave us some of the most glorious pictures of Mars’ surface. For Opportunity, the original ninety-day mission has been extended for eight years and counting. The little rover that could, did; and has been doing it since it first landed. Spirit got stuck in a sand pit in 2009 and stopped communication in 2010.

These last ten years of Mars Mission work have been inspirational in a way that NASA hasn’t been since the Challenger explosion in 1986. Why shouldn’t they be? We are no longer flying an out-of-date shuttle with total computing power of less than an iPhone. Instead, we can now wander vicariously on another planet. Mars, and more importantly the continued exploration of Mars, can mean so much.

Mars is success. It’s thousands of people working across our country towards a common goal. One that is fanciful, sure, but attainable. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy set this path by saying that we must do this work because “it is hard.” We don’t shy away from important goals, we embrace them.

Mars is imagination. Stories have been fueled since our planet first focused attention on Mars 135 years ago. After Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s discovery of the “canals” of Mars in 1877, we were treated to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; then Burrough’s The Princess of Mars; then Marvin the Martian; then Heinlein’s Red Planet; then Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles; then The Twilight Zone; then Santa Claus Conquers The Martians; then the “Face on Mars,” then, then, then… There’s a haunted symmetry to our own planet that makes Mars fertile ground with modern storytellers.

Mars is the future. Our trips to the moon begat dialysis machines, fitness equipment, flame resistant textiles, home insulation, the Dustbuster, and eventually, the personal computer that fits in your hand. It popularized the use of Velcro, Teflon and Tang. The space shuttle gave us vehicle tracking, gas leak devices, and the artificial heart. Who knows what Mars will give us?

A few weeks ago, we touched the stars. Now, let’s reach further.

    One Comment

  1. RM PeavyAugust 29th, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    I’m in by no means a physicist, or a rocket scientist. But I do get crazy interested in stuff like this. I have a deep admiration for science, and our culture and it’s importance to humanity. In other words, I nerdgasm for this stuff. What an enlightening piece!!

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