Late Sunday night, August 5th, NASA scientists and science lovers across the world bit their fingernails as the USA’s latest rover, Curiosity, hurtled toward the thin Martian atmosphere at a zippy 13,000 miles per hour. Then, through a series of fantastically planned and perfectly timed steps, the likes of which included the deployment of the largest supersonic parachute ever constructed and the lowering of the $2.6 billion 1-ton mobile laboratory via a jet-propelled sky crane, Curiosity flawlessly went wheels down inside the Gale Crater near the red planet’s equator. It was a picture perfect landing; the pin point culmination of a 352 million mile journey. Let that sink in for just a second.
Ok, now the real fun starts. Its mission sounds so simple: to answer the question, “could Mars have supported life?” To try and find that answer, the aptly named Curiosity will start its work as a nuclear powered mobile astrobiology lab, conducting sophisticated experiments in mineralogy, chemistry, geology, and climatology among others. It is a monster truck science machine if ever there was one.
Detractors may complain that this mission is money wasted, but the reality is the mission costs are a fraction of a fraction of a percent of our nation’s budget. The, what I’ll call “tangible” upside benefits, are in a two-be-determined status. Of course mission dollars recycle in to the economy in real terms of salaries throughout the supply chain; but long term uses for nascent technologies won’t show up in the marketplace for a while. Space exploration has given us the lasers for LASIK surgery, the imaging technology for MRIs, and hundreds if not thousands of other advancements in our daily lives. Most certainly the technologies surrounding Curiosity will also get in to the hands of entrepreneurs and inventors ready to advance the world’s collective standard of living. Stay tuned.
But finally, the slightly less “tangible” ROI, but by no means less important, will be the results that help us answer the outstanding questions about life on Mars. Life on Earth and its origins is still a fascinatingly mysterious thing and whichever way the evidence of life on the red planet points, knowledge about the origins of life on our own pale blue dot will benefit. As children across the metro Atlanta area file in to science classrooms this week; teachers now have this fantastic, real-time, science backdrop from which to draw inspiration and to breathe excitement in the minds of our future scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians. Perhaps one of the most important lessons our teachers can impart, is that real scientists don’t claim to know things they don’t know, so admitting what you don’t know is the act which opens the door to discovery. Hence the excitement surrounding the possibilities this mission has for adding to the ever advancing library of human knowledge and the hope that it inspires in the open minds of our children, the dreams of tomorrow.