Local space junkies celebrate Curiosity landing

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The implications of the spectacular technical achievement demonstrated by landing the Mars Science Laboratory are still being contemplated by the local space and technology enthusiasts, many of whom stayed up late Sunday night to watch live coverage of Curiosity touching down on the Martian landscape.

The predominant focus seemed to be on the sense of national pride and accomplishment and gratitude for having a new space race to inspire the next generation.

“I think the Mars landing, from a technological perspective, was the feat of a generation,” said former Weapons Station Skipper Mick Gleason. “We experienced that with Apollo, but Generation X experienced this with the Mars landing.

“We still have not had a chance to absorb this as a society — to see the significance. We have this rapid news cycle where stories perish very quickly. I think it will be some time before we see this accomplishment in its proper context.”

“We have some fantastic athletes competing in the Olympics, and we are very proud of their achievements in representing our country,” said Vice Mayor Jerry Taylor. “But I think what NASA and their engineers have done for this country is even more significant.

“To accurately and reliably put up such a complex piece of equipment from so far away is nothing short of inspiring.”

Although Curiosity’s journey includes years of research, testing and evaluation, the 2,000-pound, SUV-sized robot left earth last November and traveled some 350 million miles to get to its final destination.

“Most people will not understand that this little spacecraft did all of the landing on its own,” said Kevin Cousineau, a local technical consultant.

The climactic moments before Curiosity’s touchdown has been dubbed the “Seven Minutes of Terror” because of the complex series of tasks that had to be perfectly executed by the $2.6-billion robot. There was no room for error, and there was no human intervention.

While streaming video depicted NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees waiting anxiously, Curiosity systematically hit all its marks. When it landed, the staff erupted in celebration.

It is the indelible picture of those jubilant young engineers, rather than the drab photos released by the drone, that became the face of Curiosity’s success.

“What we saw was not just a technological event,” said Gleason. “I have a master’s in astronomical engineering, but even I could not begin to understand all of the technical ramifications of this event. But when you watch these guys hugging each other and high-fiving each other, it’s easy to relate to the massive significance of what just happened.

“We saw people achieve something that had never been achieved before. These people came together with a plan, with the right ideas and the right focus and breached insurmountable odds to achieve the impossible. And if we can do that, we can do anything. That translates into a sense of pride in being an American that is priceless.”

Dr. Elsa Hennings, a China Lake scientist who is among those who contributed to the MSL (see related story, Page 1) underscored the importance of giving youngsters something to aspire to.

“From what I’ve seen with interacting with the youth of our community both at the Ridgecrest Charter School as well as in Expanding Your Horizons, the interest in space is significant,” said Hennings.

“For some reason, kids are highly motivated by space exploration, and this tends to strengthen their interest in math and science at school. When they decide to work hard in these areas of study, they are much more prepared for the high-paying technical jobs that we cannot seem to adequately fill here in the U.S.

“Even if they never end up working in the space industry, this type of achievement by our nation’s scientists causes a large number of capable kids to push themselves to be strong technical performers, which is exactly what this country needs.”

Professor Debby Kurti, whose Lego robotics classes and demonstrations have reached countless students in the valley, said that her focus on robots and programming gives her an increased appreciation for the challenges facing the MSL.

“I also have a grad school classmate who works at JPL, so it was fun to follow her comments as events unfolded. Way to go, NASA!”

Kurti agreed that she hopes the spectacle will spark student interest.

“We need to catch kids early to get them interested in tech careers. One of the reasons I love doing robotics with the middle school kids is because you can see that spark of interest begin to develop. They need to know this is something they can do. Once you get their attention, there’s nothing that will stop them!”

She pointed out that space junkies can keep following the MSL progress on twitter @MarsCuriosity and @NASAJPL.

Cousineau pointed out that for the first time since the Viking in 1976, the U.S. has a system to analyze rock and soil samples on an extraterrestrial surface.

Proponents of this study point to the value of understanding Mars’ potential to sustain life in order to explore future colonization (more on that in a minute), but also the inherent value of understanding from a scientific standpoint how the solar system came about.

“This data will give us insight into managing resources on earth. But it also helps us develop how to look at other planets as habitable environments,” said Dr. Larry Cosner, local physician.

Sound like science fiction? It is apparently reality to others. Dutch company Mars One unveiled a video this summer that outlines the company’s apparent plan to have humans living on Mars by 2023. With backing from both a Hollywood producer and a Nobel Prize winner, the plan has been received with a mixture of excitement and skepticism.

“I think those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s — especially those of us privileged enough to do so at China Lake — feel a special connection to America’s, and all of mankind’s, exploration of space,” said Cosner.

“It represents, and I think it is, the future of our race. It reminds us that we must be both bold and cautious. We must not let fear and doubt prevent us from searching the universe, even when it is costly and dangerous.”

But it also reminds us the importance of using wisely our precious resources on our home planet, “as it is the only real estate we know of that can support us.”

So far.

Story First Published: 2012-08-08