Why are space missions actually important?
Many people will wonder why it’s money well spent when, here on Earth, people die from famine, sickness, and wars that are being fought over raw materials. Yet, as physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson would say, it’s inspiration that leads to innovation, which in turn leads to improvement other areas of the human experience. In an interview with The Verge, he said: “Advances in a space frontier reset what it is for a nation to dream again. And when you dream about a future that you can enable with science and technology, then an innovation culture takes root in your nation. And when you are part of an innovation culture, what you innovate becomes tomorrow’s economies.”
With this quote, it’s easiest to illustrate how grand achievements in science and technology can inspire others to innovate as well. The triumph this week, when Curiosity landed safely on Mars, is much more a testament to our dreams than it is to our greatness. However, in what ways does a car-sized rover embody the aspirations of a whole civilization?
All of the people who sat in the control room, and all of those who invested their lives, talents, and dreams into making Curiosity a reality, have been rewarded. Their reward is not of lottery-level monetary value, nor does it come in the shape of a medal. Instead, their reward is an emotional delight over the fact that humanity can still inspire, innovate, and push itself forward. For better or worse, their newly gained knowledge could indeed trickle down and improve the human condition even on Earth.
As I watched the live stream the other morning, I saw tears running down faces. We can only imagine how it feels to know that your robot, millions of miles away from Earth, worked autonomously to land on Mars. This is very much a grand feat, and a small step toward a manned mission to our red neighbor. It may be an ironic coincidence that Mars was the Roman god of war. Some might make the connection that we are running away, hiding from our past transgressions on Earth, to find new homes on new planets.
On Twitter, Curiosity mission flight director Bobak F. explains his colorful hairdo. On each side of his head, he sports golden stars, and a red mohawk on top. According to him, he always does this for big events. Yesterday was, indeed, a big event. I can imagine he was once one of the little boys who, like many of us, looked up into the night skies with wonder. He probably stood there, marvelling at the stars, and the far-away planets possibly harboring extraterrestrial life.
Like Neil deGrasse Tyson proclaims, Bobak F. was most likely inspired by the triumphs of previous missions and the urge to push the envelope far beyond what was thought possible. Inspiration connects people, leaving racial bigotry out of sight. This is why Curiosity and any other space venture is so important for the human condition. We are all part of this ongoing story. It is a tale of wanting to make things good again.
Just as it is for Professor Tyson, space inspires me, and so many others. It will motivate new generations to study biology, physics, astronomy, and excel in many more scientific fields. This is, in part, another thing that Curiosity’s $2.5 billion budget bought. Instilling new force into the academic system should be on top of every nation’s to-do list.
Earlier this year, a Dutch initiative set out to launch the first manned mission to Mars in 2023. Mars One is one of the projects that fully relied on Curiosity’s success. Landing large payloads on Mars is a very precarious undertaking, requiring utmost precision. This time it worked flawlessly. It may not be so outlandish anymore to assume that, before this century is out, humans may begin terraforming Mars.
Curiosity is a stepping stone into a better future; it embodies humanity’s dream of exploring. Yet, as the great Carl Sagan said, humanity will also undergo a change. We will change with technology, and, we can hope, become wiser and more clement.
NASA earned a grand success on August 5, 2012 — not just for the United States, but for the whole of humanity. As we’re propelled ever onward into the future and its as yet hidden discoveries, this date could be remembered as the day that humanity took a giant leap forward — not to run away from our problems, but to learn more about our own capacity. Humanity is a species that requires dreams. Dreams becoming reality are the rewards of a hard day at work.