In the space Olympics, the U.S. just won gold. With the safe landing of the SUV-sized, one-ton Curiosity rover at Gale Crater on Mars, the engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have pulled off the technological equivalent of the toughest gymnastics routine, synchronized dive, and 100-meter dash rolled into one.
Curiosity’s landing system, the most complex ever devised, worked flawlessly—better than anyone had a right to expect, except the people who actually created it. Those blue-shirted engineers, the experts in Entry, Descent, and Landing who marched jubilantly out of mission control on the night of August 5 chanting, “E-D-L! E-D-L!” represent the best in us. They are NASA’s space Olympians.
Now that their work is done, the really exciting part is just beginning: the exploration of Gale crater, which may hold clues in the search for life on Mars. That quest began thirty-six summers ago with the Viking Mars landers in 1976. I was a college intern on that mission, and I remember the excitement about the possibility that the Vikings might discover something alive on Mars. But it was a reach too far. Back then, scientists didn't know nearly enough about the composition of the planet’s surface to sniff out traces of biochemistry in Martian dust.
Today, after nearly a decade of preparation, Curiosity has capabilities that make Viking look like a Model T. Instruments that took up most of a laboratory wall when I was a geology student now fit neatly inside the rover. And Curiosity builds on more recent missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers, which uncovered proof that parts of Mars were once habitable. If Curiosity finds the building blocks of life at Gale Crater, we will be one giant leap closer to knowing that the miracle of life is not unique to Earth but one that may be repeated on countless worlds.
Furthermore, Curiosity’s 2.5 billion dollar price tag—significantly less than Viking’s cost in current dollars—amounts to the cost of a movie ticket for every American. Mars missions are getting better and less expensive.
So what, in the scheme of things, is the justification for the draconian budget cuts to NASA’s planetary program that threaten scientists’ carefully thought out plans for exploring the solar system in the coming decade? Is it that we don't value the high-tech jobs, the magnet for STEM education, the knowledge and inspiration we get from NASA’s planetary explorations?
Does anyone think the Office of Management and Budget has done the right thing in prohibiting NASA from planning any more so-called Flagships—the ambitious planetary missions that have done so much to transform our understanding? If that ban is not lifted, Curiosity will be the last of its kind for the foreseeable future.
NASA’s space Olympians aren’t looking for medals—though they surely deserve them. A more fitting tribute would be for the OMB and Congress to lift the dire restrictions on planetary exploration and give these incredible Americans the chance to dare mighty things again.