Roving Curiosity: Why NASA's Jaw Dropping Mars Mission Is Worth Every Penny Roving Curiosity: Why NASA's Jaw Dropping Mars Mission Is Worth Every Penny
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Roving Curiosity: Why NASA's Jaw Dropping Mars Mission Is Worth Every Penny

by Wylie Overstreet

August 18, 2012

At 9:44pm last Sunday evening, I walked into Griffith Observatory, perched high above Los Angeles, to witness an event. It wouldn’t involve a telescope—the city’s glow drowns the stars out so effectively that during the power outage following the Northridge earthquake, police received calls from concerned citizens about how strange the sky looked. The event I'd come to see was to take place far beyond the reach of the Observatory's telescopes.  

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published a small book titled On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. It delivered a startling conclusion: the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of our universe. Our planet was in fact third out in a pack of seven: as average as you can get. It’s common knowledge today, but back then, it changed everything. The Copernican Revolution shifted the paradigm so drastically that it single-handedly sparked the Scientific Revolution—a period, according to historian Herbert Butterfield, that "outshines everything since the rise of Christianity, and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes.... It [was] the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality." Humanity was forced to swallow its ignorance and to confront an unpleasant concept: if the fundamental idea of our universe—the Ptolemaic model—had been wrong, what else had we gotten wrong? What else did we have to learn? 

And therein lies the Why. 

NASA’s sole purpose is this: to search for truth. "To reveal the unknown for the benefit of all humanity"—that's its motto and that's what Brandon was trying to articulate. When we push back the frontier of space, that is when we are at our best. The old among us find renewed hope, the young, new aspirations. It inspires us in a way no other science does. Infectious disease research simply does not make jaws drop. NASA germinates new generations of scientists and innovators, individuals who can solve our terrestrial problems. It galvanizes the world, as Sagan noted, “to address problems in other fields that also have never been solved. It gives currency to critical thinking, the sort so urgently needed if we're going to solve hitherto intractable social issues." If we can do this, we ask, what else are we capable of?  


Back at the observatory the clock showed 10:27pm. Curiosity was still decelerating, the heat shield cooking away at 3000 degrees. Then at 10:28, while traveling 1000mph, Curiosity deployed its parachute. Telemetry showed 9gs of force, but everything remained in the green. The rover was slowing--700mph, 500, then 300. 

At 10:29, the rover jettisoned the heat shield, allowing it to scan the ground and pick itself a landing spot. Moments after, a voice over the comm: the rover had switched to powered descent. The Skycrane system had detached from the parachute and was now descending the final 3000 feet on rockets. At mission control, a few pumped their fist and high fived; this was the home stretch. Over the radio, an engineer called out speeds. “Descending 70 meters a second... now 50.”  The room fell silent as altitude and speeds continued to fall. 

Tense moments passed on screen as the clock turned to 10:30. Over the comm, the announcement came: the Skycrane system had started; the rover was lowering itself to the surface of a foreign planet on a cable from a fully automated hovering rocket-powered platform. A man next to me looked his friend and mouthed “Holy shit.” An engineer at mission control involuntarily stood up, like a spectator willing the ball to clear the fence. 

Then a signal—a "tone" in the parlance—that had left the Martian surface 14 minutes ago to travel millions of miles through space, arrived at JPL to declare to the world that we humans had just successfully parked a nuclear-powered six-wheeled robotic science laboratory on a foreign planet. The auditorium exploded with cheers. On screen, engineers were jumping up and down in unbridled joy. Some just stood and wept. Someone next to me popped a bottle of champagne. Strangers hugged strangers. Others broke out in chants. 

A few moments later, a grainy, black and white image appeared on screen—a quick snapshot to confirm the landing. A shadowy wheel was visible in the foreground, and beyond, a dark rocky plain stretched out towards a distant glow. It was the sunset. In the auditorium, on the faces of the young and old, I saw the same emotion: awe. We were spellbound, in disbelief at our own achievement.

Over the next few weeks, Curiosity will use new instruments to divulge the nature of Mars’ organic carbon compounds to discover if it once possessed the chemicals of life, and maybe, just maybe, to discover if it harbored life itself. Any data will improve our knowledge of how life began here on Earth, but in the off chance they find vestiges of alien life, it will be the greatest scientific discovery in centuries, a 21st century Copernican Revolution: Earth is not unique. If Mars had life right next door, where else did life occur? Where does it still? How can we get there? That chance alone is worth my seven dollars. 

Images Courtesy of NASA/JPL

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Roving Curiosity: Why NASA's Jaw Dropping Mars Mission Is Worth Every Penny