NASA's role—"to reveal the unknown for the benefit of all humanity"—could never be fulfilled by the profit-oriented, risk-averse private sector.
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.
Eight months ago, NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory strapped a car-sized rover worth $2.5 billion to the top of an Atlas V rocket and sent it on a one-way ride to the red planet. Now, on the evening of August 5th of the following year, the Curiosity Rover was landing. In 40 minutes, it would begin to enter the thin atmosphere, the first step in the most audacious, batshit crazy, there-is-no-way-that’ll-work landing sequence ever devised. Because it takes 14 minutes for signals traveling at the speed of light to traverse the 156 million miles to Earth, Curiosity would have to do everything on its own: fully automated, without human observation. If all went according to plan, the confirmation of a successful touchdown would arrive 7 minutes after it all began: 10:31pm.