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There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars! The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.
The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle. A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction. The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer. It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster! If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).
The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely: now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.
Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment. Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal. Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research). To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.
Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals. Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not. That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils). Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars. The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries. China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).