An acquaintance apparently saw my exuberantly gushing Curiosity posts and tweets, and IMd me with “that big a deal, huh?”.
It took me a few minutes to figure out how to respond, how to capture the pride and emotion and admiration. But, I tried to do just that, and this is what I sent back:
At the risk of sounding pompous, in the annals of space exploration, Curiosity’s landing on Mars has to count as one of the most significant milestones. How significant? The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 placed humans on the moon, that was hugely significant, it changed how we thought about science and space travel and human endeavors, and inspired a generation to think big. The Space Shuttle program in the 1980s made space travel almost appear normal and even easy, reusable launch systems and vehicles completed 135 launches the vast majority of which never received any news coverage because going to space had become so routine, that is until Challenger and Columbia reminded us of how dangerous each mission really is. Apollo 11 and the Shuttle program changed our perceptions of what is humanly possible. They moved the bar between the doable and the unfathomable. They rewrote the book on scientific accomplishments and engineering ingenuity, and reminded us that the inconceivable can soon become anything but. They made math and the sciences cool, and made anything seem possible.
And the way I see it, Curiosity is just as significant. Engineers and scientists spent more than a decade conceiving and building a one-ton nuclear powered robot (yes, Curiosity is a robot) the size of a car. Curiosity is now a long way from home, it traveled millions of miles for 36 weeks to reach Mars, and then it had to land itself using maneuvers that would make an Olympic gymnast shrink in fear. And engineers had to plan it all, thinking through every scenario and what-if, speculating about anything that could go wrong, anticipating any contingency, teaching Curiosity everything it needs to know so that it could autonomously execute an utterly audacious landing. Mars is 34,000,000 miles away when it is closest to us, so replacing parts is not an option, nor are manufacturer recalls, or scheduled maintenance – Curiosity has to make do with whatever she left home with back in November 2011. Oh, and there was no real way to test this thoroughly, the trial-run was the actual landing a few hours ago. And it worked, flawlessly!
Curiosity is going to send us incredible pictures and data for a long time to come, at least for a complete Mars year. And if prior rovers are an indicator, Curiosity should be keeping us busy for much longer than that. But even if we were to never hear from Curiosity again, the successful landing is already hugely significant in that it has already moved that bar once again. Forget HAL and R2D2 and Marvin the Paranoid Android, Curiosity is a real robot, an incredibly intelligent and capable machine built by man, a machine that will force us to once again rethink the impossible and the inconceivable.
Years from now you’ll remember where you were when Curiosity proudly announced that it had planted its wheels on Mars, and you’ll never forget the scenes of hugs and tears and jubilant cheers being broadcast from NASA JPL.
So, yeah, this is a big deal, a big fat freaking huge deal!