At around 10:45 Pacific time on August 5, 2012, I realized I was living in the Future. We only learned how to fly just a hair over a hundred years ago, and last night we used a sky-crane straight out of science fiction to lower a nuclear-powered robot the size of a car onto another world. We had no control over the descent, the parachute deployment (also the largest ever devised), the sky-crane, the rover–none of it!
These were a programmed series of maneuvers that had to be accomplished without human intervention. More than that, these were maneuvers that could never be tested here on Earth. You will never find video of sky-crane prototypes lowering mock-ups of Curiosity onto some airfield on Earth, because it could never be accurately accomplished here. It was all simulated in a computer. Last night’s landing was its first proof-of-concept demonstration.
I witnessed this amazing event not on the legacy media of network television, which broadcast grainy black-and-white pictures during the moon landings over 40 years ago, but on two internet livestreams (one from the Planetary Society, the other from JPL), a 3D real-time simulation, an audio commentary, and several Twitter feeds.
The rover itself sent data during its landing to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), relaying the information 154 million miles to the Deep Space Network here on Earth, which then relayed the information to communications satellites orbiting our own planet, which then sent the information to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, who then transmitted the information to the people of Earth over the Internet so they could watch it on their computers and phones–their phones!
I know a lot of people are fairly underwhelmed with the idea that we have dozens of robotic explorers and satellites on other worlds within our solar system, serving as evidence of our scientific curiosity and engineering genius, and continuously relaying new discoveries about the world we live in and our place in it. But to someone who lives in a country patting itself on its back for past accomplishments and steadily shrinking away from doing great things while slowly crumbling from within, it was nice to be reminded that in a lot of ways we are living in the Future and that there are still those among us daring to do mighty things that elevate us as a species, instead of sucking us down into the muck and the mire of common barbarism.
It was a reminder that we can be so much better than we are and that we’re still capable of doing the great things that propel us forward.
All these worlds are ours and on each of them is the chance to make ourselves anew. Let’s go.