Can a feisty robotic rover exploring Mars inspire millions, like earlier manned space missions? With human missions beyond the International Space Station on hold, the spotlight has turned on machines.
Interest was so high in the rover Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" approach to the red planet this month that NASA's website crashed. The rover last week beamed home photographs of its first wheel tracks on the Martian soil since its daredevil landing
"There's something exciting about reaching another place in the solar system. If you think about the kind of interest the landing of Curiosity had, you get a sense of that," said Smithsonian Institution space curator Roger Launius. It wasn't on the same level as Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon in 1969, "but it was pretty darn exciting," he said.
With the space shuttle fleet retired, the International Space Station is all that's left in space travel by humans. Its current crew of six for the most part quietly goes about doing its job about 250 miles above the Earth. President Barack Obama nixed plans for returning astronauts to the moon in favor of landing on an asteroid and eventually Mars.
These days, space exploration is carried out by robotic spacecraft — commanded by human handlers on Earth.
Advances in technology have allowed unmanned spacecraft to go farther and peer deeper, with craft circling Mercury, Saturn and the asteroid Vesta, and others headed for Jupiter and Pluto. The twin Voyager craft are still going strong at the fringes of the solar system 35 years after their launch.
American University space policy analyst Howard McCurdy said today's generation of explorers was raised on technology and tends to get more jazzed about delivering a car-size rover to Mars.
"Robotic exploration has taken more of a center stage," he said. "It gets more publicity now than the International Space Station."