Watching Curiosity touch down on Mars today almost 40 years after the Viking landers first visited Mars in the 1970s brought back a lot of happy memories for me. Too young to remember the Apollo moon missions, but just old enough to remember seeing a strange black and white image of a Martian desert in the newspaper.
I remember the adults at the time almost being nonchalant about it. As a kid, there was no doubt that grownups thought this an important achievement, but at the same time it seemed as if it was to be expected. After all, humans had just been to the moon, so going to Mars was no big deal. Little wonder then, that through my eyes I thought space travel was normal. An innocent notion reinforced by my favourite book- "You will go to the moon", and the swathe of television shows showing people traveling all over the universe at will.
But then for a whole variety of reasons, the exploration of space by humans seemed to stall. With the benefit of hindsight, the reasons were obvious. Even a trip into low earth orbit is difficult, dangerous and expensive, and serious space travel, even more so. The moon missions revealed little of value in the lunar regolith, and the red soils of Mars offered little more. Mercury and Venus were both inhospitable no go zones.
As politicians turned their back on the greatest human achievement and public enthusiasm went colder than deep space on the need for exploration of the solar system, it was left to NASA, the Soviet/Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency to keep plugging away. Amidst round after round of budget cuts they continued to make progress. They copped criticism for failures. They had their very existence questioned by many who thought we might be better off fixing our problems on earth first.
So seeing the live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars today seemed to put the past 40 years into perspective. To land a mobile laboratory, the size of a car, so precisely and so successfully really was a remarkable moment in human history. To see the team at NASA, men and women of all ages celebrating this milestone was brilliant. For the next two years Curiosity will explore the Martian surface, conducting experiments which will tell us more about the origins of Mars, the solar system and perhaps even how organic life might form. The implications of what we discover may well alter how we see ourselves and our place in the grander scheme of the universe. It is also possible some of the discoveries we make on Mars might motivate us to take better care of our planet, Earth.
All of this excitement and interest arises courtesy of the technology we enjoy today. Connectivity allows us to watch the transit of Venus or a solar eclipse, or view the distant past through Hubble’s amazing images. It allows people to explore their own curiosity, and gives us the power to look beyond our own lives. Could it be that the cold, lonely inhospitable solar system may on closer inspection, reveal signs of other organic life? Will space provide an answer to replenishing the dwindling resources here on earth? Have humans finally woken up to the fact that no matter what your creed, colour, religion, or politics, the future of our species rests in space?
These types of questions might be the trigger to encourage another generation of children to seek careers in science and engineering; and this alone justifies the importance of international space programs to human endeavour. So while our generation today will record Curiosity’s achievements as a giant leap forward for space exploration, our children’s children’s children may well acknowledge it proudly as our species first small step toward the stars.
Watch FiST Chat 80: Mars Curiosity Touches Down for more on this topic.