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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).
The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation. To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”
However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be. Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans. Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini. Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system. I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks). These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.
The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes. A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.
I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations. Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want. Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility). I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches. I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity. The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off). But I’m open to other ideas. We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.