This piece written by William T. Dowell was first published by The Essential Edge on 5 August, 2012.
Geneva — To get an idea of the true significance of Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars you only had to watch the live feed from the Jet Propulsion Labs in California. Scientists, who had held their breath through much of the “Seven Minutes of Terror” as the space vehicle descended through Mars’ atmosphere, erupted into applause and tears as the the robot explorer gently down on the planet’s surface and began transmitting the first tentative photos.
In a sense, the true space age has now really begun in earnest. The exact moment that Curiosity touched down at 7:32:54 AM Geneva time marks one of those seminal cross roads in human history. Curiosity is the fourth probe to land on Mars, but it is different from its three predecessors. It is much larger, and it has the tools to do real analysis, and to move, albeit slowly, over a considerable distance. As one scientist noted about the first, Pathfinder landing, “It was great, but we were young and stupid.” A lot has been learened since earlier probes, but what really distinguishes Curiosity is that it demonstrates the viability of the technology needed to actually land human beings on another planet. Until the last few moments this morning, even the scientists at Jet Propulsion Labs and NASA were not sure that they could actually pull it off. Early 20th century satirical cartoons showed the moon, smarting after an artillery shell landed on its face. While that might have suited earlier space probes, Curiosity was no mere projectile, and the distance covered–350 million miles–means that space exploration has entered a whole new era. We are no longer merely hovering just outside the earth’s atmosphere. Mars marks the beginning of serious interplanetary travel.
The achievement defies imagination. As Curiosity approached Mars, it was traveling at 13,000 miles per hour. It had to slow to a mere thousand miles an hour just to enter Mars’ atmosphere without catching fire, and it then had to come to a nearly complete stop in order to enable the sky crane to hover over the planet’s surface and gently land Curiosity on flat terrain.
Through all of this, JPL and NASA were able to maintain control and communications over a distance of 350 million miles. If Curiosity were never to send back any information at all, the achievement would still stand as a major testimony to human imagination, daring and scientific achievement.
The amazement of the scientists at JP was palpable. There was a bit of embarrassing patriotic backslapping from a few of the scientists, who remarked that the United States is probably still the only country that can actually carry off a prject of this magnitude. Someone remarked that the probe was”made in the USA.” But under the circumstances, the hubris seemed pardonnable. If anything, the self-congratulation briefly underscored the general insecurity that the US seems to be experiencing these days over its place in a fast changing world. It was also a reminder that both NASA and the Jet Propulsion Labs are conscious that if they need to continue building public support if they want to continue exploring space. The Curiosity mission cost $2.5 billion, but as one scientist noted: “None of that money went to Mars. It all stayed here on earth.” It also contributed to pushing human knowledge to a new frontier that had previously been considered the purview of science fiction. For a few breif moments, the mission stood as an absolute stunning achievement, and certainly a tribute to the brillinace of NASA and JPL, and hopefully, it would not be their last Hurrah.