Curiosity killed the cat . . . satisfaction brought it back. I haven't thought about that old saying until this weekend when all eyes (okay, maybe just several thousand) were on a car-size robot as it landed on Mars. Awfully kind of NASA to schedule this momentous event early this morning, just in time for my Monday Morning Musing post.
With Curiosity's touchdown we continue our efforts to leave home, to find out what's out there. Curiosity isn't the first rover to go exploring on Mars. It's just bigger, better, more sophisticated, more [name the superlative] than its predecessors. It will take pictures, drill, gather soil and rock samples. Curiosity's mission: to find out if Mars ever held life, has life and, most importantly, is capable of sustaining life.
Why are we curious about Mars? Until recently, imagination in the form of books and movies about the planet most similar to ours has been our source of information. Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and let's not forget Devil Girl from Mars. Imagination must have played a big part for scientists to figure out how to learn about Mars. Telescopes, orbiting satellites, rovers. All because we are curious about our neighboring planet.
I can only imagine the tense moments before Curiosity touched down on the Red Planet. NASA described it as "seven minutes of terror". What if Curiosity crashed and burned? What if something essential was damaged during descent and landing? What if it didn't work? There have been disappointments before. Those moments of terror for those who'd worked so diligently for so long turned into triumph this morning.
Scientists are not all that different from us writers. We are curious, we research, we wonder "what if", we use our imaginations to transport us from the here and now into another world. Science has never been my strong suit. My eyes glaze over during detailed explanations about how things work and why it's important to collect soil samples. I mean, c'mon, don't we have enough dirt here on Earth?
I know, I know. I'm impatient. If we're going to explore our solar system, let's go. We went from putting the first object in space (the USSR's Sputnik) to putting a man on the moon in less than twelve years. Magellan, Balboa, Columbus—they just went. Okay, there was a little matter of funding that delayed them, but they jumped in their boats and took off. Their curiosity—and the prospect of great riches—motivated them to explore. It seems as if we're taking such baby steps to discover new worlds. Maybe we're more cautious than those explorers six hundred years ago. Maybe we're not ready to find out what's out there. Maybe our "boats" aren't strong enough to weather the voyage. Maybe we need to build a "bigger boat".
For now, our curiosity about our neighbor will have to be satisfied with pictures—up close and personal pictures—from a robot. That will have to do, I suppose, before we ever send people. In the meantime, other writers and I will continue to make up stories where gallant pioneers, space cowboys, adventurers do what we cannot. Yet. Explore the vastness of the universe.
Don't forget to come back on Thursday to meet my author friend from Scotland, Nancy Jardine.