At first, I didn't think much of it. Hearing about NASA's landing of a rover on another planet was an event that sounded as if it was only for particular groups of people — science fiction aficionados, for example. However, I decided to give it a chance and see what made the event so popular, as my Facebook wall was strewn with nothing but comments of NASA's live feed about the mission. My next few moments were spent watching a simulation video of the rover's landing sequence, and at that point I was hooked.
The complexity and uncertainty of the mission — especially the intimidating "Seven minutes of terror," where the Mars Science Laboratory had to navigate and land itself, due to lag time of communicating between Mars and Earth — quickly grabbed my interest. The main difference between this mission and other Mars exploration missions was the landing sequence. To summarize the landing from nbcnews.com: After safely entering the Martian atmosphere, the probe's heat shield would be ejected, and a supersonic parachute would then be deployed. Next, however, the parachute would also be discarded, and a series of rocket thrusts would decelerate the probe — now only made up of the Curiosity rover and a sky crane attachment. The sky crane would slowly lower the rover down to the Martian ground with tethers, then disconnect itself and fly away to crash a safe distance from the rover. Sounds simple enough when you summarize it, but it is hard to imagine how much time, work and programming went into just performing the landing sequence.
It's no surprise that many people like watching dangerous and risky events for entertainment, and this was no exception. If anyone wants to doubt the difficulty of such a task, according to Space.com, "(out) of the previous 39 missions targeted for Mars from around the world, 15 have been successes and 24 failures." That averages out to a dismal global success rate of approximately 38 percent.
NASA's success with this rover mission illustrates the perseverance and dedication of hundreds of scientists, engineers, and thousands of hours of planning and testing. However, what occurred on August 6, 2012 was not an achievement just for NASA, or for our government — it was an achievement for our generation and for the generations to come. To have lived and seen such a momentous occasion — and be an eyewitness to the birth of the "Mohawk Guy" meme — that was when I realized what I was watching was an extremely rare opportunity. This event will lay the foundation down for future space-exploration missions, not just for the United States, but for other countries as well.
With the Curiosity rover now fully operational and even disintegrating rocks with its laser, it's hard to not think about what is next in regards to the future of space exploration for the U.S. We used to be a dominant force in space exploration, and although we still are, other countries are quickly catching up. NASA's budget, which began decreasing in share size beginning in the mid-1960s, according to London's The Guardian, went from 0.1 percent of the U.S. federal budget in 1958 to a peak of 4.41 percent of the budget in 1966, and is now going to a predicted 0.5 percent for 2012, a miniscule amount. This disturbing trend of budget cuts for NASA has put the organization and the future of space-faring vehicles in jeopardy, but with the great landing of Curiosity, hopefully more money can be appropriated for space exploration and research. The futuristic space technologies that we have seen in numerous science fiction shows and movies are no longer just fantasies — they are now dreams that can be reached. With Curiosity's success, we have made a small but significant step toward the future for space exploration. In the words of NASA's own flight control announcer: "Let's see where our Curiosity gets us."
—Jan Urbano is a junior in BCMB. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.