Other Views: Mars rover gives us a reason to look upThe successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars early Monday was a scientific and technological feat of uncommon competence.
By: The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Jamestown Sun
The successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars early Monday was a scientific and technological feat of uncommon competence. The NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory teams that worked for several years on the project demonstrated a style of imagination, coordination and execution that is uniquely American.
The technology is all the more amazing because it was designed to travel 350 million miles through the hostile environment of space and then land on another hostile environment: the surface of Mars. Not only did the trip from Earth go precisely as engineered, but the never-before-done landing system worked flawlessly.
By any measure, Curiosity, even before it goes to work on the red planet, is an astonishing accomplishment.
The incredible machine weighs a ton and is the size of an SUV, making it the heaviest, largest human-made object to touch down on Mars. It is festooned with technologies that will be tested by harsh conditions as the rover gathers and delivers a trove of data that scientists will mine for years. The probe is supposed to work for two years, but if the history of Mars landers is any guide, Curiosity could function for a much longer time.
From a political and funding angle, the successful landing is a huge win for NASA and the future of space exploration by unmanned machines. Curiosity was very expensive — some $2.5 billion and counting. Had it failed — crashed into the Martian dust — the future of the U.S. space program would have been more iffy than it is now. But its initial spectacular success and the promise of its exploration of an intriguing Mars landscape gives new life and new excitement to NASA’s work.
Curiosity does not mean the future of space exploration is assured, however. The reality is that NASA has scaled back a lot. Small minds with smaller visions continue to erode the agency’s budget, thus limiting the scope and reach of the U.S. space program. Citing priorities on terra firma, policymakers and funders have opted for parochial political expediency rather than visionary science and creativity.
Curiosity is a bright spot in that mostly dim picture. It may be the Mars lander makes extraordinary discoveries that once again fire up the enthusiasm of Americans and give new energy to both unmanned and renewed human exploration of space. If that happens, Curiosity’s success will be measured in more than scientific and engineering prowess.