Thoughts on Curiosity's soft landing on Mars

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I wanted to reflect a bit on the Curiosity rover that gently set down on the surface of Mars Sunday night. I was pretty excited and a little nervous about the landing; so many things could go wrong! Not that I really had a horse in the race but it bothers me how little funding NASA gets and if Curiosity failed I think it could have had an adverse impact on future funding. That's just a gut feeling. In fact this whole post is about gut feelings; I'm certainly no expert on the space program.

Anyway I was excited and nervous and my girlfriend and I stayed up until 2 am waiting first to see if the craft would survive its "Seven Minutes of Terror" and then to see the first images come from Mars. We were bouncing between Twitter, which was completely lit-up with Curiosity tweets, and video from Mission Control. That coverage cut to Times Square a few times, where something like 1,000 people stood with their necks craned up to watch the mission's progress.

I still remember watching the Apollo missions, and particularly Apollo 11, on TV. I, and every other kid I knew, was space crazy. We drank Orange Tang and ate Space Sticks and put together plastic models of the Lunar Module and I was sure that by the time I was an adult I could probably go to the moon on vacation if I wanted to. And of course I wanted to be a scientist, and maybe an astronaut, when I grew up.

That didn't happen and our manned space program faltered. Now we send robots and for a lot of people that hasn't been quite as exciting as sending people. But somehow Curiosity seemed able to rekindle that enthusiasm.

For me it was the idea that the craft had to land itself, I think. Not that this is the first time that an interplanetary lander has had to find its own way to the surface, but once you knew all the permutations that Curiosity had to go through it just made the whole process seem more amazing. I couldn't help but think an observer on the surface of Mars would assume a sentient being was piloting the craft as it came down.

Curiosity was built by physicists and engineers and programmers (again, a layman's interpretation) and these are the heroes of the mission.

As I finally got to bed that night I felt inspired. The people who built Curiosity and sent it on its way are just regular people who committed themselves to their own education and were determined to put in the hard work required for the undertaking. They didn't have to be a certain height or a certain weight or have perfect eyesight. They didn't need to have the lightning reflexes of a test pilot. They just had to be educated and dedicated.

I realize this is all fairly evident, but I also feel like I'm not the only one who was moved by the landing. It's so easy to become complacent about who and where we are. Sometimes we need to see a team "Daring Great Things" to shake us up and motivate us. It's a little late for me to become a rocket scientist but that doesn't mean I should spend my evenings in front of the TV when I could be learning and building things, right?

I'm sure that in the days to come Curiosity will provide us with a wealth of scientific knowledge that'll be crucial for further Mars exploration, but for me, the craft's biggest contribution to humanity is the inspiration it provided those of us who watched and waited and listened along with Mission Control on Sunday night.

I'll leave you with an interesting data point. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion to build and launch while the London Olympics cost $14.5 billion to produce. Where are our priorities?

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. Forthe latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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