Do you see the video at the top of this post? That is drama. That is suspense. That is better than most of the crap on television today – and it’s real. Not “reality” in the way that most “reality television” tries to sell itself, but real. These are the moments that renew my hope in humanity, and remind me that we are capable of so much if we simply want it.
The landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, known as Curiosity (the name of the rover itself), is far more than a simple robot roaming the rust red desert our Solar System’s fourth planet. Curiosity serves as a beacon for future scientific endeavor; a reminder that humanity, when we choose to realize our potential, is capable of reaching into the abyss of nothing and grasping the impossible. And I say humanity because while there may be an American flag on Curiosity‘s chassis, Curiosity lives because of the efforts of brilliant men and women from across the globe. Scientists, electricians, designers and computer programers from Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Russia, Finland, and France worked with the United States together to make this event possible, and ultimately Curiosity‘s findings will lead to scientific and technological breakthroughs that will benefit all of mankind.
I’ve always had a soft spot for NASA and this instinctual human curiosity (pardon the pun) to explore the stars. The idea of discovering and exploring new worlds, to constantly expand our understanding of the universe around us, speaks to our very nature. It’s the same need for understanding that took the first vikings across the Atlantic ocean, and took us to the Moon. But beyond satisfying that basic human need to know, the brilliant men and women of NASA have, over the past forty-plus years, changed the way that we live our lives.
And it’s tragic that most people don’t realize it.
I’m talking about the NASA Technology Utilization Program, also called the “spinoffs”. These are technologies that have been taken from NASA and adapted for public consumption to improve the quality of life for humans across the globe. The failure to understand the purpose and immeasurable importance of this program is upsetting, but it’s systemic of a larger problem that most people have, which is the inability to see the forest through the trees. Many people fail to see the profound impact on their lives that NASA has had, and in this age of instant gratification, most simply don’t have the foresight or patience to look a decade or two into the future.
This is part of our problem, not just in the United States, but globally.
Without NASA’s space robotics research, we may very well not have artificial organs or limbs. Without NASA’s research into lightweight, flame retardant materials for use on the Space Shuttle, firemen across the world would not know the light, less cumbersome protection that they use today in battling blazes. Without NASA and the International Space Station, “water purification” would still consist of boiling it in a pot and skimming the grime off the surface.
Just about everything you see and use in daily life, from your computer and cell phone, to the materials in your mattress, to vacuum cleaners, LEDs, tires, solar energy, and baby food, has been influenced by NASA research. None of this includes the direct medical impact that NASA research has had on the diagnosis, treatment and management of diseases, alleviating pain, decreasing rehabilitation time, medical implants, hygiene improvements, and so much more that I can’t even wrap my head around.
TL;DR: NASA has impacted almost every aspect of all our lives, and that impact has made us all better.
Last night we saw that, despite numerous financial cuts, despite continued attempts by certain political forces to render the program impotent, despite a decade of what can only be described as disdain and disrespect for the program, NASA is still capable of doing things that no other entity could dream.
And they did it on what was, in relative terms, a shoestring budget.
Now, I know that Curiosity landing on Mars is not going to lead to faster-than-light travel, or anything that you could lift out of the pages of a Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica script. But the importance of this event cannot be ignored, and the impact that Curiosity and the research performed by the Mars Science Laboratory will have on our lives in fifteen to twenty years cannot be measured.
But I think that right now, in this moment, Curiosity‘s biggest impact is that it is a reminder to all of us that when we put our minds to a task and commit ourselves wholly to accomplishing our goals, we are truly free to dare mighty things.
Feature Image: NASA Scientists in the Mars Science Laboratory Support Area react to the first image transmitted by Curiosity, minutes after landing on Mars.