Art by Sacha Irick
On July 21, 1969, the world sat in eager anticipation as Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, declaring to a worldwide audience of millions that it was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s moonwalk captured the hope and anticipation of a generation after the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been locked in a space race — rather than strictly an arms race — since President John F. Kennedy made it a national goal in 1961 to land on the moon and safely return the astronauts to Earth.
The scientific hopes and dreams of our generation have been far less well-promoted, but space exploration has continued. President Barack Obama announced plans in 2010 to send a crewed mission to orbit Mars by the 2030s, and several other missions have been launched to other planets in our solar system. We’ve also seen a number of breathtaking discoveries and photos from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn — including its heavily-publicized July 19 picture of the earth — and the Voyager 1 mission, which was just recently confirmed to be the first object made by humans to have left the solar system.
Following in the tread marks of the Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity rovers which were sent to Mars before it, NASA’s Curiosity rover was the most ambitious project yet to explore the red planet. Launched at the end of 2011, the Curiosity mission marked the beginning of a new era of public engagement with space exploration.
During the late hours of Aug. 5, 2012, NASA provided a live stream of what came to be known as the “seven minutes of absolute terror,” as ground controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and viewers around the world waited for transmissions from Curiosity to return to Earth. In those seven minutes, the car-sized rover had either been destroyed, or it had successfully descended through the Martian atmosphere on its own to land using a method developed specially for its size. The landing also showcased the new face of NASA as Bobak Ferdowski — popularly known as “Mohawk Guy” — became a media sensation during the live stream, and when President Obama called to congratulate the team at JPL, he commented, “it does seem NASA has come a long way from the white shirts, dark-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors. You guys are a little cooler than you used to be.”
With confirmation of its successful landing, Curiosity began the process of updating its Facebook and Twitter with a self-portrait on Mars and regular posts reporting its discoveries and findings in a previously unexplored part of the planet. In its mission to determine whether Mars could have ever hosted life, the rover was packed with as many scientific instruments as possible and sent to Gale Crater, which was estimated to have once harbored water in an earlier era of Martian history.
Curiosity has set a number of milestones already, including becoming the first man-made object to play music on an extraterrestrial world, singing “Happy Birthday” to itself on Aug. 5, 2013 to commemorate its progress recording tens of thousands of photographs and scientific tests and having driven just about a mile on the Martian surface.
Last week, Curiosity made a major scientific breakthrough when it discovered trace amounts of water in the fine Martian soil. While far from being a flowing river or an underground reservoir, scientists have estimated based on the samples taken by Curiosity that Martian soil contains two percent water by weight, meaning that for every cubic foot of Martian soil, one liter of water could be extracted.
One of the primary concerns with planning a crewed mission to Mars was the prohibitive cost of transporting water from earth. While it remains extremely unlikely that liquid water exists on the planet’s surface, the presence of extractable water resources makes any future expedition far simpler. Furthermore, the presence of water beyond the polar ice caps indicates that it may once have flowed across the surface.
Scientists are still poring over the data coming in daily from Curiosity, even as the rover continues its trek to climb Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, in order to better understand the geological history of Mars. Its original two-year mission was extended in August 2012 to be indefinite, representing the massive amounts of work to be done, as well as the amazing potential of Curiosity to do it.
Our generation is uniquely poised to reach out and explore new frontiers where humans could never have imagined going before. The time for young people to get excited about science and space exploration is now, and the need is ever-present in our society. As Obama mentioned, the face of NASA is changing, and the torch is bound to be passed off to people like Ferdowski who see the universe as a mystery to be explored and understood.
This recent discovery marks one small step Curiosity is taking to open new frontiers in scientific exploration, and someday it may even enable a Neil Armstrong moment when a human is able to set foot on the red planet and gaze back at the pale blue dot which we call home. Until then, we must content ourselves with getting Twitter and Facebook updates from our generation’s extraterrestrial milestone.
Follow Patrick Rear on Twitter: @pgrear92
As published in the Oct. 3, 2013 issue of the Pepperdine Graphic.