Monday, August 6, 2012


Curiosity Lands

Curiosity Parachuting Toward Martian Surface, Seen By Orbiting
Satellite (Photo: NASA; Talking Points Memo)

One Of The First Images Sent Back By Curiosity After Landing
(Photo: New York Times; NASA TV, Via Reuters)

I grew up as a child of the Space Age, not far from one of the major launch sites that could conjure up names out of a mythic past: Mercury; Gemini; Apollo; Thor, Atlas, Saturn. The deep rumble of a rocket engine tearing through the sky was a regular experience; everyone stopped what they were doing to look up and watch a point of fire at the top of a long, white contrail arching out over the ocean.

It was also normal to see some of them explode, destroyed by a signal from ground controllers as they veered off course. Early one winter evening in the early 1960's, I stood looking out my bedroom window at a launched missile that had clearly gone off course. Its contrail pinwheeled around behind it; what I didn't know at the time was that I could only have seen this spinning effect if the rocket was corkscrewing through the air, nose-on, right in my direction. Suddenly it disappeared in a flash and grey-black cloud, the report of the explosion arriving a moment later and black specks of debris falling to the ground. I went back to reading a comic book.

Missile Contrail At Sunset; This One Was A Success

I collected everything I could get my hands on in magazines about space, the solar system, rocketry and NASA; I had a collection of every Mission Patch ever made. I met John Glenn (who genuinely seemed uncomfortable with being famous) for two minutes in 1963 and was -- well, on the Moon for the rest of the day.

The notion of space exploration has always seemed a particularly American enterprise -- second into space itself but first to the Moon (probes, then the landing in July of 1969), first to send probes and then rovers to Mars; the leader in aerospace engineering and development.

The past quarter-century, however, has sen the rise of the ESA (European Space Agency), and in particular China, which seems poised to use some of its 'new wealth' in an attempt to create a permanent Moon base. I like the idea of humankind leaving the planet -- believing the old Robert Heinlein quote that "Earth is simply too small a basket for humanity to put all its eggs in" -- but there's a part of me that bridles (unrealistically) when thinking they may not be Americans. Clearly, they did their jobs well in the schools of my youth.

While the American Empire is in decline, we managed to divert enough money -- less than $10 Billion, actually -- to develop and build the Curiosity rover and launch it to spend the next two years testing aspects of Martian soil, atmosphere and rocks in an attempt to answer some fundamental questions around how both Mars, and the Earth, were formed. One question they may answer, or not, is whether in the distant past Mars ever supported any forms of life.

If the answer to that question is an unambiguous Yes, then it will be proof that life can develop independently, anywhere, given the correct conditions. That Drake's equation was correct, and that out in the vastness of space are other life forms.

(This reminds me of two things: One, a childhood memory, and the other a joke. I had a coloring book in the mid-1950's which showed the history of rocket development -- I have a dim recollection of coloring a glum-looking Robert Goddard and one of his rockets, and a happier-looking Werner von Braun.

(One of the last line drawings were two astronauts [You knew they had to be American, of course], having climbed down from a lander that looked like something out of Rocketship XM [a 1950 sci-fi film about a journey to Mars].

Rocketship-XM Takes Off For Mars, With A Soundtrack
By Ferde Grofe, No Less (Photo: MST3K Fansite)

(The astronauts had landed on another planet; in the background were tall, alien buildings; one of the astronauts was shaking hands with a bald alien in a robe, whose face appeared a bit like Max von Sydow as Ming The Merciless [Yeah; Ming of Mongo; I know] in Flash Gordon. It was a friendly image, and nothing like the hostile experiences of crews in films like Ridley Scott's Alien or Prometheus.

(The joke [Which Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman put into the mouth of a character in Stardust Memories] is, If there's life on other planets, I can prove it has a Marxist economy.)

Yesterday, at about 10:20 PM, PDST, the Curiosity probe shot into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles an hour, slowed through atmospheric entry and eventually deployed a carrier with thrusters that allowed it to 'float' over the Martian surface long enough to lower the Curiosity rover at its designated landing site -- just south of the Martian equator, at the southeast edge of Gale Crater.

Touchdown was confirmed at 10:32 PM and roughly two minutes later, Curiosity began transmitting grainy black-and-white test images back to NASA mission control.
The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory.

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at a news conference following the landing, “well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
At present, the idea of a manned mission to Mars is being discussed for the mid 2030's (god willing and the creek, or ocean levels, don't rise). If I live that long, I will be a very old man when it happens -- but some of me is still the boy who watched rockets thunder up into the sky, and wanted to see us take the next step in a larger evolution. The boy still wants them to be American; the man wants them to be human beings.


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