Saturday, August 04, 2012

NASA is Our Hero

We at the Egg are often heard harrumphing about the fact that we do not yet have the personal jetpacks we were promised for the Year 2000.  We are still reeling from the GOP's shortsighted decision to choose a presidential candidate who might win over Newt Gingrich, who promised to flame out in a spectacular fashion -- but also promised to build us the damned lunar colony we've been waiting for since 1969.

But you know what?  Real science is cool too.  And although the fact that we now live in the era of commercial spaceflight, of Chinese space stations, and of a decommissioned space shuttle fleet may sometimes make NASA's glory days look like a thing of the past, it ain't necessarily so.

In a few hours -- 5:31 a.m. on Sunday, GMT, which is 1:31 a.m. in New York -- NASA will land the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.  If you haven't been following the story, this may sound ho-hum:  What, another robot buggy looking at rocks?  But there's so much more to it than that!  For one thing, this robot buggy is nuclear-powered truck.  For another, the thing is going to climb a 3-mile-high mountain.  And for a third, the new thinking is that Mars may have as much underground water as Earth does, which makes the search for evidence of life (and the prospect of colonization) a lot less impractical.  But the biggest thing, for us, is the landing itself.

Forget the airbags.  They're going to drop this sucker onto the surface using retro-rockets and a freaking space crane.  How's that for pushing the edge? (Here's a text description from iO9, our source for pretty much everything we know.)  

Here's a mock-up video.  It's 11 awe-inspiring minutes of what NASA hopes will happen:

Mind you, there's always room for error.  The distance is such that the landing can't be controlled by human beings; this is all going to be done on auto-pilot, and we won't even know if it has worked until a few minutes after the fact.  Some people at NASA describe the incredibly complex maneuver as "seven minutes of terror." Everybody knows that it may fail, which is -- of course -- one of the risks of exploration.

Today, we read (also at iO9) that they're even planning to film the landing from a second spacecraft, already in orbit.  It's an iffy proposition -- Curiosity will be hurtling toward Mars at hundreds of mph, the other craft is moving, the controllers are hundreds of millions of miles away.

But you know what?  Even if there are no pictures -- heck, even if there is no landing -- this is one of the most ambitious pieces of space exploration ever attempted.  The engineering skill involved is immense.  So, sure, SpaceX shot some cargo up, the Chinese managed to dock with their own station, and we need the Russians to give us a boost getting to ours.  But when any of those guys can build a 2000-pound nuclear robot truck, send it into space, then drop it with pinpoint accuracy into a crater on Mars using absolutely new technology, all the while taking pictures from your other orbital craft -- well, let them give us a call.  Until then, NASA is our hero.

1 comment:

Mark C. Christianson said...

NASA is my hero, too. Everything went swimmingly, and they had images seconds after landing confirming a safe landing. How cool is that?!