“It’s too emotional for me,” declared Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems whi
le looking at new images from Mars. Malin operates the video camera of the aptly named Curiosity, the laboratory on wheels that gently touched down on the planet on Sunday.
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory arrived on target on schedule, after a journey of 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles. The one-ton nuclear-powered vehicle is much larger and heavier than earlier Mars probes, and carries an instrument array to collect information, including possible signs of life.
More than half the 40 Mars probes have been failures. Curiosity so far qualifies as an exceptional success. The complex interaction of an enormous parachute and powerful reverse jets to accomplish the soft landing of the big payload is unprecedented.
Those involved from the Jet Propulsion Lab and National Aeronautics and Space Administration should feel tremendous triumph, and the rest of us should reflect their pride. For NASA, new ground gained on Mars should provide high-ground
advantage in Washington, where the agency faces severe budget cuts.
Earlier successful missions have included the little land rovers Opportunity and Spirit, which landed on Mars in 2004 and kept chugging along the landscape for years. When Opportunity stalled in a sand dune, engineers on Earth 100 million miles away were able to maneuver the vehicle back onto solid ground.
With relatively little publicity, President George W. Bush made distant space flight a much higher national priority again, to include a manned mission to Mars. The Obama administration has been much less interested in space exploration.
The political atmosphere for this adventure is much less favorable than a half-century ago, when President John F. Kennedy in 1961 dramatically committed to a manned mission to the Moon and ba
ck. Space generates far less public excitement than in JFK’s time, in part because we are collectively much more cautious.