Monday, August 6, 2012

Mars Curiosity: Why Bother?

One of the first test images taken by Curiosity, showing one of its massive wheels!
As we celebrate the magnificent August 5/6, 2012 achievement of NASA and its international team to land Mars Curiosity on the Red Planet, I'd like to ponder some of the reasons for doing such work--far beyond all the pretty pictures we will soon begin to enjoy.

One of Curiosity's major tasks will be to search Gale Crater for evidence of water and the building blocks of life.  It will provide geological testing of rocks and soil samples, as well as photographs for other studies.

So why should we care?  Because we humans are curious.  We are explorers.  Adventurers.  We need to know what lies beyond the hills, beyond the seas, beyond our own world.  We always have and we always will.  It's this very curiosity that separates us from the other creatures of Earth, and produces remarkable developments upon which our civilization, our lives and our world-views are built.

Studying Mars helps us understand ourselves and our planet; in other words, when we explore a different world we begin to see our own with an entirely new perspective. For example, confirmation that liquid water existed in Mars' distant (or perhaps, recent) past begs such questions as:  What happened to it all?  How and why did that planet change from wet to dry?  And was Mars ever once habitable and could it be habitable again?  But this is just the beginning.

The technology and unbelievably complex international teamwork to get all to work together as a single unit, and to land a large craft on Mars, will aid in future robotic missions to Mars and other worlds.  And where robots go, Man is sure to follow.

Then there are the technological spinoffs from the research leading to this mission, something people tend to forget as they use that very technology in their everyday lives--everything from material sciences to communications to camera technology to navigation to aerospace engineering to mapping to robotics to life sciences to chemistry to atmospheric sciences and hydrology... the list can continue for pages.

And let's not forget the inspiration for our children...  to dream beyond their everyday world, to a future of excitement and promise. How many of them will change the way they look at themselves and their world because of missions like this?  And how many will become inspired to enter the sciences and develop new technology and medicines, or make revolutionary discoveries?  We may never know. 

Now, there are those who argue that the $2.5 billion cost for such work--about $8 per U.S. citizen--could better be spent right here on Earth, but this serves only to demonstrate their ignorance and short-sightedness. We haven't packed up 2.5 billion dollar bills in a box and shipped them to Mars; they're all being spent right here on Earth to employ many tens of thousands of researchers, engineers, contractors and sub-contractors, and other support staff around the U.S. and the world to accomplish this grand achievement and, perhaps more importantly, lead to remarkable future developments.

Solving scientific mysteries, creating technological innovation, inspiring future generations, employing thousands... all for 8 bucks per person.  Now THAT, my friends, is a stimulus package! 

As exciting as the landing events were, we must remember that this mission did not begin and end with the landing; it's been going for nearly a decade and will continue to benefit us in countless--even unimaginable--ways for decades to come. 

Yes, there's more to such missions than just pretty pictures!

Curiosity and its parachute were spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

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