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Commentary: Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ a fitting name

Courtesy of MCT

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There was something so transfixing, so mesmerizing about watching that room full of scientists wait with baited breath as the much-ballyhooed Curiosity rover descended from the heavens and fell flawlessly to the surface of Mars early Monday morning.

It’s almost perfect that the rover, which is set to spend about two years on Mars collecting data to determine if Mars was ever capable of hosting life, is called Curiosity. Everything about the mission is curious. We watched curiously as scientists plotted every movement, rattled off every statistic as the rover inched closer to the surface. And we’ll continue to watch closely as it attempts to answer one of our everlasting questions about the cosmos.

Yet, we had no live images from Curiosity to track its progress as it fell toward the Martian surface. A multi-million dollar machine, possibly one of the most advanced devices ever created by human hands, was impossible to track live. Darn. You mean to tell me you can tie a tiny webcam to your cat’s head and watch it poop in a litter box but we can’t watch one of our greatest technological achievements travel through the cosmos?

I figure there’s good reason for that but it almost made the experience more beguiling. 

Data suggested Curiosity has crossed into the Martian atmosphere. Cue eruption of cheer.

Data suggested the parachute deployed. Cue eruption of cheer.

Data suggested landing. Cue total jubilation.

It was breathtaking to take in such a magnificent and other-worldly human accomplishment; a reassurance that we are capable of good and wondrous things after a week of news about hate-filled chicken sandwiches.

We’ve landed on the moon. That was cool. We’ve even successfully put rovers on the surface of Mars before. But this … this was different. The same technology that gives us the ability to watch our cats poop allowed us to watch as a team of geniuses tracked Curiosity’s landing.

I don’t know what it was like watching our moon landing in 1969. I don’t know if this compared. But this almost gave us a connection; a vested interest in Curiosity’s fate as we watched the reaction from the people who have devoted years of their lives to this machine as its fate was being determined.

Adam Steltzner, the leader of Curiosity’s Entry, Descent and Landing team, said in a press conference soon after the landing that the name “Curiosity” is a reflection of one of the inherent qualities that makes us human. He’s right. That’s why we care about Curiosity. That little, WALL-E-like rover is an extension of us.

I don’t know what Curiosity will find on Mars. If it finds E.T., that would be neat. If it finds some tiny microbe fossils, that would be neat, too. But even if it finds nothing, not even a speck of anything meaningful amid that red, iron-rich dust, we should at least be proud of the fact that we are capable of such amazing good; such amazing technological marvel that will push us into the future and help generations upon generations after us solve the unanswered questions of the heavens. 

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