What Mars means to Earth

NASA's Curiosity rover isn't just another robot we sent into space; it's a game-changer for science.
Crosscut archive image.

NASA's rover Curiosity parachutes successfully down to the surface of Mars.

NASA's Curiosity rover isn't just another robot we sent into space; it's a game-changer for science.

As you are no doubt aware, at 1:38 a.m. on Monday morning, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech succeeded in landing a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars. This effort required years of scientific, technical and engineering preparation, resulting in a novel multi-stage process for getting heavy equipment onto the red planet, rife with steps which, if any failed, would likely cause mission failure.

The landing occurred without a single problem, including minutes during the critical last phases of the flight when the spacecraft was out of communication with Earth and ran autonomously.

While this effort will no doubt have a great impact in improving our knowledge of the Mars geology and surface, including habitability for future human missions and perhaps information on past life in the targeted crater, there is a deeper meaning to this effort:

Science is reality.

At a time when a large and increasing fraction of the U.S. population does not "believe in" science (i.e., objectively provable reality) — or, worse, has bought into the idea that science is just one choice on the reality menu — NASA has again given concrete reason to understand that science works, and that science is not an option, not a theory, not a menu item, but instead represents the finest efforts of human minds in understanding, and addressing, objective reality.

Those on Earth who currently think that science is a political football should take note: Not only are you endangering your own reputation, you are endangering the welfare of your constituents and, today, of the planet itself.

Any person or party that mocks science should be considered for what he, she or it is — a threat to the welfare and future of us all.  Under the influence of political propagandists, misled religious zealots, and truly dangerous television and radio empires (such as Fox [Not] News and Rush Limbaugh), too many people today have been led to believe that science is in some way an option to opinion.

Science is as optional as gravity. Ignorance is the only real option.

It is time for the U.S. to catch back up to the world in this matter, and recognize the value of scientific study and theory, the use of scientific consensus in guiding public policy, and the wonders that we can achieve when we abandon self-aggrandizing political fantasy in favor of objective scientific knowledge.

We should use this marvelous achievement to create a new cultural change in the United States, returning us to the group intelligence of past eras, when no one doubted that an experiment, done with the same result several times, demonstrated an objective truth. Not an opinion, not a religious position, not a political chip, but another addition to human scientific knowledge.

The world owes much to the people of NASA, of JPL, and to the taxpayers of the U.S., who have achieved the most important step in space exploration yet attempted. This was done by a willing and informed government, working with private contractors, paid for with taxes.  It stands as one of the greatest of tributes to human intelligence yet achieved, shoulder to shoulder with decoding the human genome.

Crosscut archive image.
I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch the scene inside JPL headquarters in Pasadena, as Curiosity makes its way safely to the Martian surface. We owe a great deal to those pictured in their moment of triumph, and citizens of the U.S. owe it to themselves, if they wish to remain a great nation, to put a rapid end to the rise of ignorance in their country that threatens scientific endeavor and the acceptance of scientific findings.

Thanks go out to all of the people who, using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, just flew a car-sized laboratory across the solar system, landed it safely at the end of four lines under a crane under a rocket under a parachute, to bring us yet more scientific knowledge about the world.

It is time for all Earth inhabitants to recognize the value of science. In doing so, we will find common ground for agreeing on other important things.

Long live Science.

  

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