Curiosity kills the sceptics

As you know by now if you have the slightest interest in the US space program—and maybe even if you don’t—the unmanned Mars exploration craft called Curiosity landed successfully the other night, a little after midnight Central Daylight Time. This represents both a triumph for those who have advocated unmanned automated space exploration as the way to go, and the advent of a new NASA that is willing to relax and do a little showbiz of its own.
The Curiosity program is not without its critics. Originally planned to cost US$1.6 billion, which as major space probes go is not cheap but orders of magnitude less than manned flight, the launch date was delayed by two years because of technical problems and the final cost so far is $2.5 billion. And as with any novel space venture, there was always a significant chance that the whole thing would turn into useless space junk.
But there’s a lot of grateful engineers at NASA this week. The elaborate sequence of rocket deceleration, ablation of a heat shield as the craft entered the thin Martian atmosphere, deployment of a parachute, and ignition of “hover” rockets to suspend the main body of the craft a hundred feet or so above the surface while the Curiosity vehicle itself was lowered on a cable, all worked apparently without flaw. Cheers greeted the first grainy black-and-white image that the craft sent from the Martian surface.
Payoff will be a while in coming. For the first month or so, engineers will just be checking out all the systems before issuing orders to drive anywhere. But there are some very sophisticated instruments on board, including lasers to vaporize rock samples, a kind of low-power microscope, and a Russian neutron-based instrument that can search for hydrogen up to three meters deep in the soil. The main goal of the whole project is to search for signs of present (or former) life on the planet.
I am not in the habit of making prognostications, but as various space probes have shown that interplanetary space is a more permeable region than we formerly believed, it would not surprise me to learn that Curiosity eventually finds some pretty uncontrovertible evidence of organically-produced stuff up there. This would raise a lot more questions than it answers, of course, ranging from which came first, life on Mars or life on Earth? to whether life just naturally shows up under the right conditions, or whether it is a special and perhaps unique feature of Earth. But we will just have to wait a few months to see about that.
My blog, Engineering Ethics, has carried more than its share of criticisms of NASA, but criticizing NASA is like saying “Texas is hot”—it’s not just one organization in one building. Some parts of NASA are indeed dysfunctional, but the division responsible for the Curiosity mission has so far demonstrated their competence in the best possible way: by succeeding in an ambitious and potentially fruitful scientific mission.
And perhaps because of the younger mix of engineers in this team, the way they have chosen to present the project to the public has a very different feel than what I am used to from NASA. The old style is represented well in the film Apollo 13, where scenes of the NASA control room were filled with pudgy white-shirted chain-smoking engineers in ties, all male. Official pronouncements and publicity were couched in stuffy NASA-speak that required interpretation to be understood by ordinary human beings. But the material coming from the Curiosity team is very different. In a photo of the Curiosity control room just after the landing that accompanied the New York Times announcement, the predominant color was blue—evidently a kind of blue tee-shirt was the uniform of the day. But there are no ties and no smoking visible, and at least a few women with responsibilities equal to those of the men are shown hugging the men.
It’s quite a contrast to the old days, and also shows up in the official Curiosity website, which seems to be aimed at about 13-year-olds. Curiosity itself is quoted as talking about its mission: “What’s My Mission?” is one menu item—and it has sent Twitter feeds such as “FYI, I aim to send bigger, color pictures from Mars later this week once I've got my head up & Mastcam active #MSL.” (The overall project is known by its full name, the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL for short, while the lander itself is called Curiosity.)
As if that wasn’t unbent enough, NASA reportedly issued a short documentary using simulated scenes of the landing, but emphasizing the risky nature of the process and using Hollywood-style effects for maximum dramatic impact.
Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Following a series of failures in the first decade of the 21st century, NASA’s public image got pretty tarnished, but at least for the unmanned missions such as the MSL, it looks like their confidence has returned. We will always have people around who say things like “For that $2.5 billion we could have fed X million starving people.” This is always true, but I think the real reason for the MSL is encapsulated nicely in the name of the rover: Curiosity. This project represents a fairly unusual resurgence in public life these days of science for its own sake, unbuttressed by wire-drawn arguments that the work will really lead to practical applications such as better toasters, or some such thing. Modern science since the days of Sir Francis Bacon has always been in tension between pure abstract curiosity on the one hand, and commercially profitable applications on the other hand. There never was a time when the two poles were not present, but the practical pole has dominated to a greater extent than historically has been the case in the last few decades.
Perhaps Curiosity will inspire through its kid-friendly publicity a new generation of scientists who want to do science, not because it will make them more bucks, but simply because they want to know. Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics


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