Exploration of space is an essential modern scientific endeavor. Many budget conscious conservatives and socially conscious liberals question the social necessity of esoteric scientific research, especially the high cost of sending instruments into the reaches of the solar system and building powerful telescopes that are ever more ambitious.
But there is a great deal that is gained by having vibrant research programs in all areas, though the $2 billion cost for the Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, might seem excessive. Launching this robotic probe the size of a small SUV off the surface of the Earth to have it land feather light onto a dusty, barren, rust-colored rock millions of kilometers away is an opportunity for discovery.
A generation of children growing up in a society that puts value in curiosity will be inspired to explore. Because Curiosity exists, because our society supports research with seemingly elusive benefits, we show that questions can be asked boldly. A space probe may excite some with the idea of becoming a NASA engineer but many others will be inspired to go on to chemistry, biology, medicine, ecology, engineering, even the arts and humanities.
Taking a longer view, our use of technology that opens space to exploration and colonization creates an opportunity that future human society may be able to inhabit artificial environments spinning in orbit, with access to power and resources that could theoretically wipe out scarcity. With the right incentives, we might be able to protect Earth's ecosystems by outsourcing mineral and metal mining to asteroids, While immediate, practical applications of the research being done with Curiosity and other current NASA missions are few, the long-term benefits to society of having that research done are many.
The Curiosity mission itself is impressive because of the innovation that went into creating and coordinating the approach and landing of the rover.
Mars is half a billion kilometers away and has a much thinner atmosphere. In order to compensate for the difficulties of landing on such a planet, NASA engineers had to come up with an innovative way to slow the rover's approach from kilometers per second to reach the surface safely.
First, the heat shield protected the capsule as the atmosphere decelerated it to 1,450 kilometers per hour (kph). Next, a parachute stage slowed its descent to 450 kph. Then, rocket thrusters slowed it further, to hover 30 meters above the ground. In order for the rover to actually touch down, a crane, still supported by rocket thrusters, lowered it to the dusty ground, setting it down gently on its wheels.
Thousands of people worked thousands of hours, spending millions of dollars packing the rover with delicate instruments, designing the delivery system from scratch and taking into account as many of the ways that the probe's journey could go wrong as possible.
All of this was for the sake of roving about a crater, shooting rocks with a laser and examining samples of soil, in the hope of finding some fossilized microbes.
Curiosity is being put through its paces on Mars. It will allow scientists to make discoveries that they could otherwise only dream of. For these scientists and their colleagues, Curiosity represents an important step up in interplanetary science. For some it is a step further in the hope that eventually humans will walk on Mars, that we might make it another home for human beings. With this endeavor we can better understand the way our solar system formed and both Earth and Mars came into being.
That any human society has achieved this - or made some discovery, unlocked the technological potential of a material, developed a model for sustainable use of resources - is not a national achievement, it is a pan-human one that every person benefits from in the long term.
Photo: A chapter of the layered geological history of Mars is laid bare in this postcard from NASA's Curiosity rover. The image shows the base of Mount Sharp, the rover's eventual science destination. Image via NASA.