“I really think — what I hope — is that when Curiosity lands on Mars…it’s just going to blow everyone’s mind, and we’re going to see this explosion in interest in science the way it was during the Apollo era. That’s our hope, anyway; we’ll see what we deliver.”
- Charles Bolden, Head of NASA (here)
At 1:31 A.M. EDT this Monday, August 6th, a machine the size of a Mini Cooper with a red, laser-spitting eye, will land on the surface of Mars.
The scientists and other team members at NASA’s Mars Science Lab have nicknamed this, the newest rover set to comb the Red Planet, ”Curiosity” – as this mission surely represents for the scientific community, and for the rest of us, an ushering in of a new and important era of space exploration characterized by heightened risk, innovation, and a persistent curiosity in the space beyond our little Blue Planet. This, of course, in the name of knowledge and progress and discovery; this, in the name of adventure.
But a legitimate question arises: why does it matter? With Pluto’s demotion from planet to plutoid, the official retiring and last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program (1981-2011), minuscule government funding (0.34% of GDP), and apparent waning or dispersion of public interest (there’s a lot happening right here, on Earth, to keep our attention), it seems sensical that one would ask such a question. Plus, two other rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) still comb the planet’s streaked, cratered surface – why a third, why now, why at all?
Beyond Curiosity’s scientific significance – “Unlike previous rovers sent to Mars, Curiosity is a robot chemist seeking evidence of past habitability on Mars.” – exists its potential as a cohesive force for re-forging, and re-envisioning, both the American and global community. Further potential (and positive) outcomes:
- the spurring of economic growth (astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why on a recent episode of The Daily Show)
- renewed interest in the maths and sciences, especially for younger children, which could also be a boon for further diversification within these fields (the more voices, the more ideas, the better)
- a refocusing of cultural energy from fear and pessimism into practices of progress, action, and well-placed optimism
- …not to mention the wealth of information recovered from such missions which, in turn, may revolutionize the way we understand ourselves and one another
Much more discussion is to be had about the wide-spanning implications of space exploration, but I’ll end this with keen insights from two space pioneers that, regrettably, both passed away this year —
“I was growing up in the early days of the space program, and I can still remember teachers wheeling those big old black and white television sets into the classroom, so that we could watch some of the early space launches and splashdowns, and that made a real impact on me, as I think it did a lot of kids growing up at the time. I thought a lot about what it would be like to be on a rocket and what it would be like to be in space when I was 12 years old.” – Sally Ride, first U.S. woman in space (here) // O.E.P. alum Meg Urry’s obit. can be found (here)
“Everything we’re doing in the world today has to do with destruction, and death, and murder, and war, and we need something to make us all feel better, and that’s space travel.” – Ray Bradbury, esteemed American author (here)
- J. J. Morr