With the landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars this week, perhaps we’ll find during the coming century that the first “Martian” to land on earth will be one of our neighbors, returning from the red planet for a little down-home visit with his cousins here in the Old Country. Stranger things have happened!
The mission focused on the plutonium-powered rover, weighing over 2,000 pounds. It has six wheels and lots of neat instruments like lasers and its own drill. But it still looks like Wall-E after several binges at a fast-food restaurant. Curiosity was launched last November on its eight-month voyage, winging away from Earth silently into outer space as we earthbound creatures celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter and Passover, Mother’s Day and graduations, Flag Day, the summer solstice, the Fourth of July, Bastille Day, and the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. That’s a lot of lonely travel and a lot of celebration, too. Now we have something else, something previously impossible to celebrate.
Mars is about 153 million miles away from Earth, but the rover traveled over 350 million miles to reach its destination. As a frame of reference, our Moon is a mere 240,000 miles away! Upon Curiosity’s arrival, the speed of the capsule containing the rover was initially slowed down by the Red Planet’s atmosphere. While the capsule was still traveling at over 1,000 miles per hour toward the surface, a supersonic parachute, the largest ever made, was deployed.
As the capsule continued to descend, small rockets fired to further retard its speed. But here comes the really cool part. The capsule then shed its skin and the small rockets thrusters caused what remained of the craft—its core—to hover about 60 feet above the ground. Then, imagine this; a “Sky Crane” lowered the rover by cables to the planet’s surface. Next, the cables detached, the Sky Crane flew off and the rover “landed”! Amazing, too, is the fact that the rover touched down right upon its target, the Gale Crater–a speck of “land “only two miles in diameter. Far easier to land in a place like the much larger Grand Canyon! Talk about Buck Rogers stuff!
Also worth noting is that it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to travel the millions of miles from Mars to the Earth. That means that from the time the capsule entered the Martian atmosphere until it landed, the folks back home could not signal landing instructions to the spacecraft. So the entire landing occurred on auto-pilot, controlled entirely by the craft’s computers, making the landing sort of a “Look, Ma! No hands!” exercise of the highest intricacy imaginable.
While I have read a fair amount about the life of Albert Einstein, I don’t pretend to understand any of the intricacies of his various theories. But what fascinates me most about Einstein’s genius is that when he published his work on the nature of light and his theories of special and general relativity, there were no ways of proving or disproving his claims. Yet he was steadfast in his belief that his theories were correct. As time passed and technologies were developed–like the atomic clock, then one by one his theories were proven correct. I think that possibility of future proof is what draws legions to read and watch science fiction. We are first fascinated by the wonders the future may hold. But the greatest of wonders is when fiction germinates into reality; those moments when we ask ourselves, “Can Jules Verne’s time machine be many years off?”
Did you know that no traditional means of accomplishing the feat existed when the plan to land a ship on Mars was first proposed? Moreover, the manner in which the rover landed could not be simulated on Mother Earth, so there would be no “dry runs”? Tell anyone doubting their self-worth to remember that theirs is a human heritage shared with the Curiosity team—the most remarkable men and women among us.
Pull up the grainy black and white pictures first transmitted this week from Mars! These photos are the first declaration that a group of our brethren put a machine on another planet to answer scientific questions long pondered. The scientists and engineers who pulled off this feat have every right to revel in their accomplishment.
I believe the two essential elements of creating great teams are first, to bring together a group of people no one of which is asking overtly or covertly, “What’s in it for me?” Second, all members of the group must be in pursuit of a transformational goal. With those two conditions accounted for, great teams gladly perform in times of adversity. The mind-boggling complexity of this interplanetary project meets that prerequisite. How complex? What these gals and guys achieved is nothing short of a technological tour de force!
Successful space exploration of the kind accomplished early this week is the greatest example of humankind’s limitless creativity and resilience in times of adversity. If you know any individual or team that needs to refurbish their self-esteem, have them watch the following link:
The video shows the Curiosity team as they live through the final moments before the rover landed. It memorializes the reaction of many members of the team, giving a window into their emotional bond to the project and to each other. What a great team they make!
Why? Because each member of that team has utilized well the gift divinely instilled in each of us–the gift of curiosity! Not the trivial curiosities about possible crossword-puzzle answers or which Tuesday evening in September NCIS’s new season begins—those mundane curiosities that populate our thoughts, but a profound curiosity in pursuit of unearthing and defining vital questions that deserve to be answered.
Some say that we cannot afford to continue the NASA space program. That the money is better spent in other ways. If you compare the cost and worth of scientific projects like Curiosity to specific social projects and then require an either/or choice, funding the space program seems a less favorable choice. My answer is to change the platform of discussion: Compare the cost of space exploration to the costs of the myriad ways we squander money on projects attractive to only a select few. In that way the answer is inescapable. The thoughtful social commentator Bret Stephens in writing about Curiosity observes that, “Greatness also often comes from unexpected places.” He sees that Curiosity fulfills a legitimate purpose in extending humanity’s knowledge about our ever-expanding environment, and that “…with its emphasis on basic science, precision technology and exploration, [Curiosity] is a quintessential American project.”
The next time one of your children or a coworker or someone on your team says they can’t reach an agreed-upon goal, that some sticky problem has caught them up short, here is your answer: “If a group of individuals who share the same gene pool that swims around in your own gray matter can figure out how to drop a automobile-sized object into a pothole eight months and 153 million miles away from home, can you not figure out how to drive sales, increase customer satisfaction…or clean your room?”