A couple of month backs my very pro-education missus (she of the two PhDs where normally one suffices), packed me and the kids into the larger of our two gracefully aging Saturns and we drove over to Caltech, the academic home of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to attend their Open House Weekend. An event that this year drew an estimated 20,000 people to the campus.
It was an astonishing afternoon. The kind that makes you wonder what in the world you were thinking when you were a kid. Why didn't I set off on a path that would have brought me to a place like this, rather than the one that brought me to, well, where I am now? Interests do change, I suppose. Plus I have to admit that I was never really all that good at math. That likely played a role.
And one of the things that I got to see when we were there was a close relative of the Curiosity Rover. Or at least the chassis of that now famous version of the rover. It didn't have all of the scientific stuff attached to it like its cousin currently sitting somewhere on the surface of the planet Mars does, but I didn't know much about that at the time. It was all very interesting nonetheless. The fact that something very much like it was hurtling towards another world was enough for me.
The engineer that was running this particular exhibition put the Curiosity chassis through its paces for us, which were exceedingly slow and cautious. Its most amazing feat being that it could roll over fairly large rocks without tipping at all. Assuring that its imaginary payload of many highly advanced scientific instruments would maintain a steady gaze on the mission at hand. All of which impressed me greatly.
So late last night JPL issued the following press release, and I couldn't read it fast enough (click here for the entire thing).
NASA's most advanced Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars Sunday to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack.
"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars -- or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Pretty heady stuff. So what is Curiosity going to do with itself out there for the next few years? The exact details of the mission are described in an article published in today's Pasadena Star News (click here):
JPL designed Curiosity to better handle the rocky, dusty terrain on Mars than Spirit and Opportunity, the two previous rovers that confirmed water on the planet in the past decade. Curiosity carries the analytical Mars Science Laboratory, built to search for signs of life during a two-year mission at Mars' Gale Crater. The crater is at one of the lowest elevations on Mars, and scientists believe water once pooled there, offering a likely home for ancient microbial life. The rocky layers of Mount Sharp, in the middle of the crater, could hold clues about organic compounds that may have existed billions of years ago.
Outside of paying my Federal Income Taxes and taking an afternoon tour at Caltech I really didn't have much to do with any of this, but somehow I have an immense amount of pride in it all. It is good to be a part of a country that can do something as visionary and technologically daunting as this. That the people who actually did the work to make Curiosity possible are just down the road from here only adds to that sense of being a part of something far bigger than just the daily grind.
We are fortunate to live in a place and time where things as immense as this are being done. This is a good day.