06 August 2012

The Amazing Success of the Landing of Curiosity on Mars, August 5, 2012

The amazing success of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity's descent and landing on Mars last night should be more prominent in our country's affairs right now: proof that, whatever our economic malaise and challenges to our educational, scientific, and technological preeminence, our nation can still produce triumphs of the sheer human drive to go out and find out what's out there.

And to those who love to knock California, and Southern California in particular, I would like to point out that one of the main parts of NASA that's producing the most amazing results for the least money (JPL) , and the most promising private enterprise space developer (SpaceX), are both located here, despite the fact that the big military contractors that did most of the development of the space technology industry back in the 50s-70s have abandoned our area. All of the Mars landers were built and guided from Pasadena, California, and this robotic space exploration is some of the most innovative and thoroughly thought-out in advance technology the world has ever seen. 

If you take a look at nasa.gov/mars and see just how complex and original in concept the landing of the compact-car sized Curiosity on Mars, 14 light-minutes away, actually was, you should feel a certain amount of awe. This thing had to work entirely on its own; in a complex and zero fudge factor series of operations, that simply could not be controlled from Earth. They actually turned off the transmitter before entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, because by the time the signal reached Earth that entry had begun, the landing ... or crash... of the vehicle had already happened. Fortunately, it was a spectacularly successful landing, and even those of us Americans who had nothing to do with this, other than contributing about half the price of a movie to the enterprise as taxpayers, should feel just a bit of pride in the sheer determination to get this done that resulted in this success. Maybe we don't usually pay a lot of attention, but this is a moment when we should. 

Why is Mars important, some may ask. You might as well ask why knowledge is important, why civilization is important. It is our essence as human beings to look over the next hill, to wonder what's over the horizon, to wonder how we might fashion tools and technology to evolve our life into something better. Exploration of space, and the answering of fundamental questions, are one of the frontiers of this essential human endeavor. We abandon that quest only if we are giving up, choosing extinction over growth. Yes, it is that basic, in my view. 

More specifically, the Mars Science Laboratory, for the first time since Viking (the other landers were heavily geared towards geology), will perform experiments that may well answer the question Was there ever life on this other Solar System World? If so, what kind of life? We now have reason to speculate (not believe just yet), that terrestrial life just might have actually originated on Mars, since it appears that Mars once had the temperate, liquid water, protective atmosphere, and protective magnetic field environment (since failed due to the planet's smaller size and distance from the sun)... that could have made the evolution of life possible. And here's the kicker... it had that environment earlier in the evolution of the Solar System than Earth did. Since life seems to have appeared on Earth almost immediately after it became possible, the conclusion that life just might have migrated here on one of the many trans-Earth orbit impact ejecta from Mars cannot be ruled out. In fact, it looks quite plausible. Curiosity will likely give us considerable information that will shed light on all these issues. 

Then, can there be any doubt that eventually, humans will travel to Mars? It has been a dream for well over a century. Only the collapse of our entire civilization could prevent it from eventually happening. So this important mission, which will help answer many important questions that need answering before human travel to Mars could be feasible, is just essential.

Congratulations to JPL, and NASA for this important milestone in human exploration.

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