By now, I’m hopeful that everyone has heard the news of the successful Curiosity landing. For that matter, everyone has probably already read plenty of the ancillary stories that go along with the landing as well. While it might be fun to muse about the fact that a guy had a mohawk in mission control, I want to consider the historical aspect of this landing for a few moments and examine the next steps we should pursue going forward.
For me personally, the Curiosity success is my version of the Apollo landings. I never got the opportunity to see the original Apollo moon landing since it occurred a few years before I was born. I believe that the Curiosity landing is every bit as exciting to many of those in my generation as the Apollo landings were back in the day. We rarely get the opportunity to witness such an historic event unfold in real-time. So this was one of those moments that serves as a reminder of just how much humanity can accomplish when we strive to achieve the seemingly impossible.
I’m getting really excited about some of the missions coming up in the future as well. For example, many of you have likely already heard of the Scarab rover, which is supposed to explore the moons’ South Pole region. It’s designed to autonomously travel through dark polar craters – the implications of this mission are exciting. Unlike many of the other rovers scientists have previously sent to the moon and other planets, this craft is able to obtain a fairly large core sample for analysis. The results may tell us a great deal about the formation of the moon or other universal secrets that we have yet to discover. So this is an exciting mission.
While the future certainly looks bright for space exploration as well, the Curiosity mission serves as a reminder that we can’t rest on our laurels. While I look forward to all of the many wonderful things NASA will discover and share with the world about Mars, it’s time to think even bigger…something I fear NASA may be unwilling to do. NASA has, in many ways, become a risk-adverse organization. I believe that’s a disservice to the brave men and women that have given their lives in the pursuit of space travel. We need to honor them by pushing the envelope to do even greater things.
Image Credit: Lockheed Martin
NASA is supposed to take risks, but they often end up giving up on projects before they come to fruition. For example, how many of you remember the Lockheed Martin X-33 test that was supposed to be the precursor to the VentureStar launch vehicle? While the composite liquid hydrogen fuel tank suffered a failure during tests in 1999, a lighter fuel tank was apparently a viable solution to the problem. Of course, being the geek that I am, I watched the entire story unfold with great interest. To summarize the events that transpired, NASA ended up canceling the program because of the early failure despite the fact that Lockheed Martin had invested well over $300 million into the project. NASA put in over $900 million. Instead of finding a solution, NASA gave up on the whole project. Risk aversion at its’ finest.
While a great deal of research has been focused on orbiters in recent years, too little attention has been paid to planetary exploration by humans. That makes giving up on projects such as single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch systems all the worse. For that matter, it would be nice to have a single-stage launch platform that could actually complete a journey to Mars or Venus. That isn’t outside of the realm of possibility, yet NASA has remained unwilling to pursue this approach due to the early types of failures described above.
Failures are an inherent part of the scientific process. Thomas Edison became famous for saying that failures were merely a way of knowing that one method of doing something wasn’t going to work. This sort of thinking made America great. Ingenuity isn’t safe, but it’s how humanity moves forward. Private space ventures are exciting for this very reason.
NASA has capabilities that private ventures can’t yet match. Since NASA is publicly funded, it has the ability to try things that have a higher risk of failure. I’m not saying that the organization should waste taxpayer money or put its’ personnel at risk unnecessarily. It should however be a little more adventurous in its’ approach and think much bigger than it has in recent years. There are probably plenty of things that NASA spends money on that could be redirected to interplanetary travel. Personally, I’d rather see my tax money go to a failed rocket launch than printing pamphlets.
I want young people to get excited about space travel. It’s the sort of landings we’ve witnessed in Curiosity and the earlier Apollo landings that really get their imaginations flowing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few young people became astrophysicists because they got to witness the Curiosity landing on Monday. We need more of the same!
As mentioned above, the possibility of learning a great many things as a result of this mission is incredible. While I’m not necessarily convinced that the Curiosity will find any semblance of life on Mars, it will perhaps alter the course of human history if it does. It will also illustrate the idea that failures aren’t always a bad thing. After all, the Viking landing crafts in the 1970s were never able to successfully incubate any microorganisms. One might consider that a failure. Those missions however were an absolute success as they paved the way for Curiosity.
If no one ever took risks for fear of failure, progress would never occur. Going back to the idea of single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch systems I mentioned, it would be nice if a craft could be developed that were actually be able to shuttle people to the lunar surface and back again on a regular basis would it not? NASA should be working on this very thing!
Orbital Elevator (Conceptual)
Orbital elevators and various other types of lifts have been discussed for a while. These types of projects may seem farfetched, but they actually have a basis in good science. NASA could explore these avenues while private companies continue to focus on conventional projects involving space travel. This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of private space exploration either. Private enterprises offer an incredible opportunity for individuals to finally democratize space and allow access to everyone. People love to compete for prizes, and competition drives the adventuring spirit. However, that’s not the only private space exploratory model and NASA should at the very least have its’ foot in the door on this front.
There have been multiple attempts at making space exploration a for-profit business, and I believe that companies like SpaceX are on the right track. Space tourism is only the tip of the iceberg. While that’s what most people seem to focus on, it’s not the only profitable aspect of space. Asteroid mining, colonization, and many other industries could bring a great deal of money back to Earth. For that matter, it could alter the entire course of human history. NASA should play a role in making this happen.
The Curiosity landing was amazing to watch. NASA is to be congratulated for the accomplishment. Now it’s time to think bigger. The next logical step should involve putting humans on Mars and/or colonizing the moon. I know, I know. Many believe that probes are a better way to spend money. Probes don’t put anyone’s life in danger, and they’re more cost-effective. While that may be true, the fact remains that humanity must ensure the survival of our species should a mass-extinction level event occur on Earth. If we were wiped out today, the Mars rover wouldn’t help us one bit. We must colonize beyond our planet and putting a man on Mars or colonizing the moon is a step in the right direction. Let’s not waste the opportunity before us by saying that we’re afraid to fail. Curiosity has shown that we are capable of so much!
The Curiosity landing was an enormous feat of engineering and ingenuity at work and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to witness history in the making. I believe it’s time to take this success and think even bigger. Yes there will be risks and failures. But as the Curiosity landing has reminded us, there is little we can’t accomplish when we reach for the stars in bold new ways.
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