Many Americans have been focused on the Olympics the past few days and might have missed the exciting news from the Red Planet.
At 10:32 p.m. Sunday, NASA safely delivered a robotic rover called Curiosity onto the sandy surface of Mars. The small spacecraft was remotely guided into Gale Crater, located just to the south of Mar’s equator.
The final few minutes of the difficult landing process was dubbed by NASA as the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” according to the Los Angeles Times, for being the most complicated sequence ever attempted to land a spacecraft.
Most of those steps could not be tested on Earth because Mars’ atmosphere is much different from ours.
The landing was a gold-winning Olympic moment for the many scientists who contributed to the mission, and was so successful that Curiosity was able to send back photos right away.
The plan is to leave Curiosity on Mars for at least one Martian year, which is a little more than two Earth years, exploring the planet and collecting geological data that might reveal whether or not Mars was habitable at some time in its past.
“This would be a full-fledged geochemistry lab, on wheels, able to vaporize rocks, ‘taste’ air samples and ingest dirt, then send the results of experiments home from 154 million miles away,” writes Scott Gold in the LA Times.
The time, effort and money spent to land Curiosity on Mars were astronomical, pun intended. The LA Times reported the mission involved the efforts of more than 5,000 people from 37 states and cost $2.5-billion.
The journey to deliver the spacecraft took 36 weeks and covered 352 million miles. Wow. I can’t comprehend such a distance.
Some argue the prudence of spending so much money on space exploration any time, much less during hard economic times.
Who cares if there is life on Mars or ever has been, people want to know. What good are these missions to everyday Americans struggling to get by on planet Earth?
I’ve asked myself the same questions, but apparently there are a host of benefits to us.
Freakanomics.com, which claims to reveal “the hidden side of everything” has a blog on their website titled “Is Space Exploration worth the cost? A Freakonomics Quorum,” which quotes several leading space authorities who point out numerous benefits to society.
One claim is that for every dollar spent on the space program, the U.S. receives about $8 in economic return.
The website also says that Americans spent more than 20 times the entire annual space budget on alcohol in 2006. The space budget costs Americans pennies per year.
Many advances in medical science can be credited to discoveries made during space exploration, including infrared thermometers—those tiny instruments doctors wave over us to read body temperature.
The process of purifying and recycling water for astronauts in space has been translated into the invention of sophisticated dialysis pumps and filters that keep many Americans alive.
The VAD heart pump, digital mammography, satellite and cell phone technologies are other inventions that resulted from knowledge gained in space missions. Who can imagine life without some of these technologies?
I don’t really care who or what has ever lived on Mars as long as it leaves us earthlings alone. I do find the vastness of space beautiful and mystifying and worth studying.
I just signed up for “Image of the Day” emails on NASA’s website so I can keep up with Curiosity’s progress and check out the many gorgeous photos of stars, moons and galaxies on the site that remind me how little we humans really know about anything.
NASA’s mission with Curiosity is evidence we’re smart enough to keep searching for answers, though, all the way to the Red Planet and back.