It is easy in an election year dominated by so much partisan fighting to be depressed about the current state of national affairs. Then there's the persistent lack of jobs, the recent mass shootings, and a horrible drought that is imperiling farmers and ranchers. But the successful Mars landing of NASA's Curiosity rover has been an inspirational bright spot. This nation still has a profound passion to explore other worlds. And it has the imagination and dedication to get there, including some help from Tampa Bay area scientists.
The Curiosity project has been a masterpiece of American technological leadership. Getting Curiosity to Mars required designing, building and launching a sophisticated 2-ton nuclear-powered robotic rover. Curiosity also includes equipment from a Dunedin firm, Ocean Optics, which provided spectrometers to help identify the basic composition of the Mars surface. Then NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California had to painstakingly control the mission of 350 million miles over eight months to produce a precision landing on the planet's unforgiving surface. A lot could have gone wrong. But it didn't.
The Curiosity project was accomplished for a relatively modest $2.5 billion. That's not a bad investment to explore Mars' geology and astrobiology on a scientific mission that could last as long as 10 years. The United States spends $2 billion a week in Afghanistan.
Curiosity represents a precursor for future manned missions to Mars. It is one giant, 350 million-mile leap for American ingenuity — and an uplifting reminder of what this nation can accomplish.