What an incredible job the super-hero nerds on NASA’s Curiosity Rover team did in bringing such a complex and fragile piece of machinery to the surface of Mars unscathed and right on target. Americans have been fascinated with the Red Planet for the better part of a century. We have seemed to intrinsically known that there is something more than meets the eye when it comes to our planetary neighbor, as if we have a connection to beyond it beyond simple “curiosity.” Recently, the drive to better understand Mars seems to stem from an ever improving case that life once flourished there, and that it no longer does. It is almost as if Mars is trying to tell us something about ourselves and our own planet by continuously challenging our ingenuity to break its cryptic secrets. In many ways Mars could have been crafted by JJ Abrams himself (producer of “Lost,” “Cloverfield,” “8mm,” “Fringe” etc) where every long-awaited answer to a pressing question results in even more engrossing question. In other words, Mars is like the ultimate mystery novel, the more you read, the more you realize how little you really know, and thus you continue turning the pages.
We have watched America’s excitement for unmanned space exploration grow throughout recent years, especially after the almost incomprehensible success of NASA’s rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Launched in 2003, these twin rovers, which are pint-sized in comparison to Curiosity, were sent to Mars as a pair as much to play the odds of a successful Martian landing as to be used as a science collecting pair. What was supposed to be a 90 day mission for the Rovers, if both made it to the planet safely, turned into well over half a decade of exploration, the rovers having wildly outliving their comparatively modest design requirements. In fact Opportunity is still going strong today after exploring some 25 miles of Martian terrain. What these rovers did for NASA’s business case for unmanned space exploration cannot be underestimated, as even the average citizen can understand the incredible value in such a successful mission. Along with this recognition of the Rover’s utility, the American populus and the scientific community at large have become accustomed to “virtual exploration” as the new norm for space exploration endeavors. Just as we have become accustomed with drones fighting our wars we have also become accustomed to similar machines exploring our solar system.
The remarkable triumph of Spirit and Opportunity have set a perfect stage for Curiosity, although a stage built on a foundation of extremely high, if not unrealistic, expectations. Having safely made its way onto the Martian surface, America will anxiously await for Curiosity’s first scientific discoveries, and as a byproduct of its potential success, it will make a deeper case against manned exploration to Mars and beyond in the near term. Drones, love them or hate them, are in many ways Man’s greatest creation, taking us to places too dangerous or technologically expensive for humans to go themselves. In fact many astronomers and physicists have said that if aliens were to actually visit earth, why would they come themselves and not just send drones to do the job for them.
Lets hope Curiosity ends up being the not-so-little rover that could, and follows in the sandy tracks of its miniature cousins. Who knows, confirmation of past life on mars could only be months away…
Side-note: I have received lots of emails and comments over the last couple of years concerning my positions on NASA’s manned exploration plans and capabilities, some of it downright hateful. I have always taken the time in my writing to underscore what missions NASA does best, and unmanned planetary and space exploration is at the very top of the list. Once again NASA great job here and we are all very proud of this accomplishment. This country really needed to see the sight of America’s smartest and most dedicated individuals freaking out with joy when their rover of love checked in alive and well on the Red Planet’s surface. Thank you guys!