The Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, Aug. 8, 2012
There was a whole lot of hooting and hollering going last Monday -- and it had nothing to do with the Olympic Games more than 5,000 miles away in London.
About the same time West Coast viewers were watching 101-pound gymnast McKayla Maroney uncharacteristically conclude her second vault by landing on her butt, NASA scientists in Pasadena, Calif., had their eyes trained on a different landing: the 1,982-pound Curiosity rover on the rocky surface of Mars.
And when the SUV-sized vehicle had touched down safely on the Red Planet -- "Touchdown confirmed," said MIT graduate and control room engineer Allen Chen, "we’re safe on Mars" -- the room of scientists erupted in applause, cheers, high-fives and hugs as they celebrated a golden achievement of their own.
Consider: Eight months after lifting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the Mars rover landed on target, one minute later than the space agency had projected, transmitting its first photo within minutes of touching down at the base of a mountain inside the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater.
For NASA, the target of budget cuts and the recent cancellation of its 30-year space shuttle program, it couldn’t have come at a better time. At an estimated cost of $2.5 billion, failure was not a good option.
For the next two years, the rover will explore the surface of the mysterious planet, using such tools as a
We hope the remarkable start to this extraordinary mission will spark a renewed interest in the nation’s space program -- and with it -- the math and science skills necessary to play a part in it.
While none of the major TV networks broke away from their regular programming -- on the West Coast, reruns of "The Mentalist" and "Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition" aired uninterrupted -- there were some small signs of childlike fascination.
In New York City’s Times Square, for example, several hundred people gathered after midnight to watch a silent live feed of the landing on a giant video screen. Once Curiosity had landed safely on the planet below, the crowd broke into Olympic-type chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
It’s that kind of excitement that could feed into the growing emphasis on the so-called STEM subjects in the nation’s schools -- science, technology, engineering and math -- with an eye toward meeting the demands of a highly technical workforce.
The exploits of the Mars rover also could encourage broader participation in the Manchester-based FIRST program, whose mission is to inspire a love of science and technology in children ages 6 to 18. That includes the annual robotics competition for high-school students.
There’s a scene toward the end of the 1998 disaster film "Armageddon" -- after Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck et al. save mankind from a gigantic asteroid hurtling toward Earth -- when children from around the world are shown playing with toy spaceships or riding in homemade space capsules with wheels and makeshift wings.
Fiction aside, we can only hope that NASA’s stunning achievement this past weekend will spark a similar fascination among the leaders of tomorrow.