This past week has been one of those weeks where those of us who revel in man’s need to explore the universe around us have a little more skip in our step. Growing up, it was taken for granted that part of being a great nation was the constant propulsion forward of adventurers and adventurous science. The concept of frontier has driven the American ideal and with the achievement of the civilized connection of the world through rail, sea, and air, the ultimate frontier has been the vastness of the heavens above. With moon as the prize, all energy and efforts went toward the conquering of a successful landing and return, but since the epic achievement of this goal became surprisingly mundane to the public in the 1970s, the concept of man’s ever outward exploration of the heavens was somewhat earthbound or, at least, “low earth orbit” bound with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
Stirrings of big things to come are now being seen, however, and two events this week make it clear that we may be back on the trail of some amazing times in exploration.
The first event to take center stage tomorrow night is the attempted landing on Mars of NASA’s Curiosity Rover, a literal robotic Lewis and Clark on wheels. In the last decade, NASA achieved a spectacular success in robotic exploration with the landing and successful travels of the two rovers Spirit and Opportunity that provided years of data collection on the Martian surface living and functioning well beyond their expected usefulness and indelible pictures of the Martian landscape. Curiosity is however a whole ‘nother animal compared to its two little ancestors – a jet plane compared to some puddle jumpers. Curiosity is nuclear powered, massive,decked out like a full science laboratory and is potentially capable of limitless exploratory life and distance. An adventuring behemoth, it will require tomorrow night a landing strategy that will make the Explorer rovers airbag landings of ten years ago seem like child’s play. With instructions and feedback requiring 14 minutes to transit the millions of miles between home and Mars, Curiosity will robotically be on its own and will have to perform the complex landing manuevers without help. The number of steps where something could go wrong is impressive, NASA’s landing team will sit by helplessly with the rest of us tomorrow night waiting for a signal the Curiosity made it to the surface intact and functional. And if it does, what a wonder of visuals and science awaits us, as we look to determine the eventual landing and living strategies for human exploration of Mars.
The second story coming out of NASA this week is nowhere near as flashy but perhaps even more important to the concept of finally moving space exploration forward again. Since the moon landings were achieved, manned exploration has been held hostage by the overwhelming cost of governmental monopoly of manned flight and the frequently manipulated and diverted attention of governmental budgetors. With the spectacular success this summer of the private company SpaceX in achieving linkage and successful return to earth of its Dragon spacecraft, NASA is realizing that the competitive private company model offers the opportunity to leap decades of budgetary infighting and largess and return America to manned space exploration to earth orbit, the moon , the asteroids and potentially Mars on a more revolutionary timetable. NASA announced the awarding of government contracts to the tune of 1.1 billion dollars to three space exploration companies, SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada , each of which is solving independently the elements of manned flight and pointing their research and investment to routine manned space flight and eventual deep space travel and colonization. NASA’s realization that private venues that have driven developments in computers, software, robotics and propulsion are better positioned to currently solve problems of efficiency, cost, and technological advancement for space exploration is new to the government but no surprise to those of us who have held that private conceptualization and enterprise, with its ability to make mistakes and rapidly adjust, has driven the technology revolution for the last two hundred years and is best positioned to do so in the future. Financial encouragement without playing favorites too early in the game is the best role government can play. It would be a welcome epiphany if the current government policy-driven overbearing touch in alternative energy development would take a lesson from what is being achieved in space and learn to keep its hands off the natural selection process so innate to private enterprise.
After several decades of casual neglect to progress in space, an exciting American revolution is developing and we are likely to see the benefits sooner rather than later. Tomorrow night in a prime example of “can do” spirit, if a multi-ton behemoth, tens of millions of miles away from its controllers, can slow from 13000 miles an hour to 1000 miles an hour by retro rockets, slow to 200 miles an hour with a supersonic parachute, self guide a landing zone with a rocket and radar adjusted lander, hover at 2 miles an hour over the landing zone and lower itself safely with a skycrane to a soft landing on the Martian surface, man’s deep space exploration and with it affirmation of man’s incredible inventiveness may once again be on solid ground. As Hal said in 2001: A Space Odyssey, its going to be Something Wonderful.