Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Looking Up

About 1,000 people watch NASA's Curiosity rover land on Mars from New York City's Times Square on Sunday. Image source: Leslie Mullen, Astrobiology Magazine, via

In the last few years, we've stumbled. We stumbled at the death of the President, the war, and on and on. And when you stumble a lot, you start looking at your feet.

We have to make people lift their eyes back to the horizon and see the line of ancestors behind us saying, "Make my life have meaning." And to our inheritors before us saying, "Create the world we will live in."

— Bruce Boxleitner as Capt. John Sheridan
Babylon 5, "And Now for a Word,"
Written by J. Michael Straczynski

As the Mars Science Laboratory aboard the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, about a thousand people crowded Times Square in New York City to watch. As one, they looked up at a giant screen televising the historic event.

Click the arrow to watch Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mission Support Area react to the Curiosity rover landing.

Three thousand miles away, a room filled with engineers and scientists erupted in joy as they successfully completed a mission years in the making.

According to an MSNBC report, the Times Square crowd chanted "NASA! NASA!" after the rover landed.

2012 is shaping up as the year of the Space Geek.

We've seen an entirely new spacefaring technology given birth. SpaceX successfully launched and berthed the Dragon cargo vehicle at the International Space Station. By year's end, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus may have done so as well.

The ISS is fully operational. The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the U.S. National Laboratory, has started soliciting proposals for ISS experiments. The SpaceX Dragon is the only vehicle on Planet Earth capable of returning experiments from the ISS.

On August 3, NASA announced the three winners of the commercial crew competition. SpaceX and Boeing were given awards of more than $400 million each to design and develop the nation's new crew vehicles. Sierra Nevada received an award of more than $200 million to design an orbital spaceplane.

Because their partners Boeing and SpaceX received full awards, Bigelow Aerospace announced that will accelerate development of its inflatable habitats, essentially private space stations that will be in orbit by the end of the decade.

Many companies have announced initiatives independent of NASA's commercial investment programs. Perhaps the most daring is Planetary Resources, which has announced plans to harvest Near-Earth Asteroids for minerals. Stratolaunch intends to build the world's largest aircraft, using two 747 fuselages to lift rockets for horizontal launch. XCOR advances its work on a suborbital spacecraft. And Virgin Galactic moves closer to its first commercial tourism flight in 2013.

Curiosity is the latest space achievement. As evidenced from the Times Square photo, for a few moments, once again people are looking up.

It's just my anecdotal impression, but it seems that many of those "looking up" these days are the younger generations who will benefit from all this new technology. An article on The Atlantic Wire web site described NASA as "the government's one true viral hit factory":

NASA may only consume 0.5 percent of the federal budget, but it generates practically all of Uncle Sam's viral marketing buzz. Never was that more apparent than on Monday morning following the successful Mars landing of Curiosity, the biggest and most advanced spacecraft ever dispatched to another planet. In an explosion of tweets, Tumbls, status updates, and blog posts, the Internet showed its love of NASA in a way other parts of the government could only dream of.

The article credits not only the "rebellious nerd cool" personalities in JPL's Mission Support Area, but also NASA's viral web strategy. "With scarcely few problems, the NASA live stream provided a window for the entire world to see its success," the article states.

Some of those over 50 grouse that the government won't perpetuate 1970s technology and the obsolete job skills that go with it. But the Internet generation seems poised to seize as their own this pivotal moment in human spaceflight history.

While one generation stumbles and looks down at its feet, another generation is looking to the horizon. For the horizon is theirs.

UPDATE August 9, 2012 — MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show on August 6 named the Curiosity landing their Best New Thing in the World for that episode:

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UPDATE August 10, 2012 — MSNBC's The Last Word on August 9 features "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi, a JPL flight director for the Curiosity mission:

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