It’s a big day today for space exploration, science, humanity, you name it. Just moments ago, the Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, despite a plethora of things that could have gone wrong during the “Seven Minutes of Terror”. Very, very exciting.
Also, a tremendous relief. Interest in space exploration has faded substantially since we landed on the Moon all those years ago. For one thing, the space race was over. We won (by counting the moon landing, and carefully discounting a series of Soviet firsts). Interest faded, and then we had some disasters that turned people off of space (as if until then it had somehow been a safe endeavor rather than an inherently dangerous process). To my mind, the Hubble fiasco was the public nadir. Sure, we fixed it later, and the Hubble has served extremely well – but we got it wrong at the beginning. Space was expensive, dangerous, and potentially wasteful. The Mars mission that went wrong because somebody used imperial measurements rather than metric may have been the technical nadir (what serious scientist doesn’t use metric), but for the public it was just confirmation that NASA = money down the drain.
So while I was tremendously excited this morning when Curiosity landed, I’d have to say that my main feeling was relief. If this had gone wrong, in an election year with a bad economy, it could have crushed the slight resurgence of interest that previous, hugely successful rovers Spirit and Curiosity engendered. Space funding could have been cut even further – there’s a good argument why it should be. But it would have missed the point of the Curiosity mission – it *is* about curiosity, and knowledge, and constantly making our big ball of ignorance smaller. It’s about answering basic questions that are fundamentally important – including the ever popular “Are we alone?”
Spirit and Opportunity both lasted far longer than they were planned to – they had 90 day missions, and Opportunity is still going, over eight YEARS later. I’m not saying Curiosity needs to match that – it’s already a thrill and a success that we landed the thing safely. But wouldn’t it be great if Curiosity also exceeded expectations, and matched Opportunity?