It’s been days now, and my excitement about the Curiosity landing is unabated.
I know it’s not the first rover to land on Mars, but it’s the most robust. Beyond that, I’m just amazed by the enormous engineering effort it took to get there. The people who accomplished this are brilliant. Essentially, Earth just sent an SUV 355 million miles through space, hit a rapidly moving target (Mars) and landed it on the surface, using audacious new technology, in almost the exact spot for which it was aiming. Now Curiosity is sitting there, going through system checks while sending photographs back to Earth. The pictures are so clear we can read the JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) logo on some of the parts; we can see pebbles littering the Gale Crater, and we can see Mt. Sharp rising in the distance. We’re looking at a mountain from ground level on another planet. We’ve even got a true-color photo of Mars.
I’m still hoping that we land astronauts on Mars in my lifetime, even if doing so isn’t as efficient as sending mobile laboratories like Curiosity there.
Here’s a little rain on the parade, though: Right now there are no real plans to replace Curiosity when its mission is completed. NASA has been given the goal of landing astronauts on Mars by 2030, but few believe that actually will happen. Funding levels are insufficient; the technology hasn’t been developed. Scientists still face the conundrum of how to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation, and there’s no launch vehicle to take man further into space.
So let’s enjoy Curiosity while we can. And let’s hope that exploring space once again becomes a priority.