Monday, August 6, 2012

Pride in Curiosity.

NASA's $2.5billion rover, dubbed Curiosity, has safely landed on Mars. Actually, that didn't do it justice... Curiosity has safely landed and I'm ecstatic about that fact!!! No, I'm not in any way involved with NASA, but there are a few reasons this one fact has made my day. First of all, the landing sequence was very precise... Everything was required to go correctly for the mission
to succeed. This landing sequence has become know as the "seven minutes of terror", and can be seen here:

Yes, the lander was able to pull off every one of those maneuvers without a hitch, and safely landed in it's intended destination; Gale Crater on Mars. It amazes me that at a time when my country's  schools currently rank at 23rd in science and 31st in math, our best and brightest can take on such an amazing feat, and handily succeed. My hope that this mission will work to inspire the current generation to reach for the stars both literally and figuratively. Otherwise we will lose out and become a county in decline.

We need to be at the forefront of education again. Sadly, when it comes to budget cuts, things like NASA and education are some of the first things mentioned. It would be much more prudent to cut from the already bloated defense budget, since we already spend many multiples above all other countries. To give you an idea, the 2011 budget gave $738 billion to defense, and NASA only received about $18 billion in comparison. A bargain, considering that they are sending things to other worlds and probes throughout the solar system. Heck, as consumers we collectively spend more than NASA's budget on everyday items annually, and many corporations post profits equal to or higher than NASA's government budget. In my opinion, NASA is a deal, as well as essential.

But on to happier thoughts. What was my first feeling as soon as I heard that Curiosity stuck it's landing with marks that would make an Olympic gymnast jealous? The first thought was relief, quickly followed up by pride... overwhelming pride in the mission, but more importantly, pride in my country. While I'm proud and thankful of our man and woman in the service, I am not proud that we have the most bombs and biggest bombs. I don't really care if we get the most or second most medals at the ongoing Olympic games. But this... this outstanding achievement of engineering perfected, drive and determination... that moment was something that made me very proud of my country and countrymen.

The best and the brightest taking on a challenge that many said wouldn't work, and made it happen. We now have an SUV sized rover on the surface of Mars that is more advanced than anything we've sent before. To be that explorer that we can't be at the moment. To answer questions, collect data and advance our understandings. Winning gold at swimming is nice, but this is a real achievement that shows the best of our ability and can have to power to influence the world for the better.

Yet, with this amazing accomplishment, I still hear people asking "Why bother with Mars?", "Why bother with space?", "Spend the money elsewhere"... As I already pointed out, NASA spends A LOT less then most government agencies, even though they send things to outer space and everyone else stays terrestrial. Some say that the money should be used to create jobs. It was! That money was used to employee the best engineers and scientific minds available the USA in order to pull off this marque mission. But was in really that expensive? The final cost was $2.5 billion. Spread that out over the entire US population, and the cost was about $8 a person. It is expected to last at least two years, making it $4 a year. But Opportunity was only supposed to last 3 months, and it functioned for eight years (and counting)! So Curiosity could last even longer, making it a bargain.

But even after we get past the cost, some people still wonder what the point is. Well, there are several points. First, the space program has given us amazing breakthroughs through the years. Products, methods, knowledge. The space program is a factory of greatness. We are on Mars to see if the red planet ever had the conditions to support life and if life ever existed on Mars in the past. Furthermore, Mars is a candidate for potential human habitation. We could theoretically warm Mars enough to one day colonize. It would probably take a thousand years, but if we hold the desire, it may be possible. A human future on Mars may be the long shot prospect, but there is a very immediate payback of this mission. Inspiration!

Missions like this inspire the youth to take notice and take an interest in the sciences. Just as the Apollo missions captured the attention and imagination of the American public. From those seeds grew new innovation and desire. Some developed technology, some dreamed of being an astronaut. But one thing is certain it ushered in the technological revolution that has become taken for granted in our everyday lives. Projects like Curiosity and the James Webb space telescope can be that spark of innovation and inspiration that Apollo once was. And in a time when test scores and interest in the sciences are waning, I feel we can't afford NOT to fund these showcase missions. They're for the good of the country as well as the world. Today, I felt a little more proud of my country, and I liked how they felt. I say we invest and explore more, so that we can be at the forefront for much longer to come.

UPDATE - Since I originally posted this, Curiosity has delivered the goods. The rover has found
evidence that the Martian landscape has been shaped by flowing water. A dry river bed has been examined, sediment has been found, and just the other day, the discovery smooth and rounded 'river stones' further confirm the past presence of flowing water on the red planet. And in even more exciting news, Curiosity drilled into the Martian surface and then analyzed the rock dust that it unearthed. After the chemical makeup was know, the news was pretty exciting. What it found was that Mars once possessed the ingredients and conditions needed for life! That's pretty damn cool! True, a discovery of past life would have been even better. But these discoveries go to prove the worth of the Mars rover project. Curiosity rover = money well spent!

-Brain Hulk

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