It was a steamy summer night in New York City, rather like the one expected tomorrow evening and early morning Monday, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history. For those of us fortunate enough to be watching at the time, it was an event like no other — a moment of wonder and pride and a sense that something big really had changed, that we humans had proved rather more worthy of the advantages evolution had bestowed on us.
Tomorrow night will be Curiosity’s turn to do the same on Mars. No astronauts will emerge from the capsule after it lands deep inside Gale Crater (in working order, one hopes,) and so the moment will not have the same life-or-death drama of extreme human exploration.
But still, I find the prospect of a successful rover landing — after its hair-raising, seven-minute final descent — brings back memories of those early Apollo days. Such excitement; such enormous risks; such possibilities. [Related National Geographic News features: Inside Mars Rover's "Terrifying" Landing: Hovercrafts, Chutes, and Shields and "Crazy" Mars Landing in Pictures.]
By dropping a one-ton rover into a Martian crater (with a three-mile high mountain nearby!), and equipping it to search over two years for the building blocks of possible extraterrestrial life; well, that’s once again a moment to savor. Earlier landers, rovers, Mars-orbiting satellites and Earth and space-based telescopes have filled in a few of the untold blanks in our understanding of the planet. But Curiosity has the potential to push things forward at an enormously faster pace.
Breaking Orbit guest blogger Marc Kaufman is a journalist with The Washington Post and author of National Geographic’s e-book “Mars Landing 2012: Inside NASA’s Curiosity Mission.” He is also the author of “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth,” published by Simon & Schuster.
NASA, groups like the Planetary Society, the Mars Society and ExploreMars have helped organize landing parties around the world – in South Australia, Crete, Colombia, Israel, Yorkshire, Atlanta, Seattle, Yellowstone National Park and of course, Pasadena, home of the Jet Propulsion Lab and mission control. Times Square will also host a late-night gathering, complete with live streaming on a giant screen high above the crowd.
Will people come? I have to think they will – probably drawn by that same spirit of grand adventure and barrier breaking delivered by Apollo 11. That, and perhaps a moment to get deeply in touch with the fact that we’re a speck in the universe and that’s just fine—especially when we’re among friends.
To me, that’s an inevitable underlying message of (or is that the underlying message?) of space science, exploration and travel.
The more we learn about the history of Mars in particular, about “extreme life” in general, about the billions of exoplanets now known to be out there and the undeniable presence of life’s building blocks throughout the universe, the more likely it becomes that we are indeed special in our own way, but we’re hardly unique.
Landing humans on the moon in 1969, or now exploring Mars for the makings and habitats of life, are grand achievements for sure. But their added thrill comes from knowing (or at least surmising) that they will be understood some day as milestones — early journeys on the way to discovering the ET lifeforms that so many top scientists now assume inhabit other planets, or at least once did.
Talk about a “giant leap for mankind.”
Watch the National Geographic video: Mars Rover’s “Seven Minutes of Terror”