Curious About Curiosity

It has been more than a year since a robot named Curiosity began its work on Mars. Some of the pictures we have seen are just spectacular and trigger the imagination. What would it be like to be there? What does it look like to spend a day looking out a window on Mars? What does Mars smell like?

In that year we have learned the red planet may actually support life. We have found strong indications that it once did and that water was common. Water, dirt, sunlight and time usually produce something organic. You know, something alive. We have not found a living critter yet. But, we no longer need to rely on our curiosity to know what it is like to look out a window on Mars. Our machine Curiosity has answered that.

The planet seems almost alive. Time-lapse photos strung together catch the movement of the sun across the Martian sky. We see a couple glimpses of Curiosity’s hardware casting a shadow that acts like a sundial. And, with a lot of work, scientists have used their curiosity to determine exactly what the color of Mars would be to the naked eye. It is not just one big giant red ball with Georgia-like soil.

There was a time way back in the ancient 1970s when people were walking on other places besides the Earth. Neil Armstrong was first and Gene Cernan last to touch the lunar surface from their Apollo spaceship. They simply assumed that by now we would be on Mars. Not our machines. Us! Some have always argued against such exploration. It is dangerous. It is hard. It is dangerous.

I once asked Neil Armstrong for his thoughts about sending machines to places instead of astronauts. It was said with machines we could learn and explore and go very far away cheaper, faster and safer. He disagreed with the concept.

“Man can be amused and amazed. A robot can be neither,” was his straightforward response.

Our country has pulled back from space exploration on a national scale. Sure, we have some projects that Armstrong’s crewmate Mike Collins has described as, “We’ll go somewhere, sometime aboard something and maybe see what happens.”

That is not the stuff of explorers. It is not the once cherished “Right Stuff” that thrilled billions around the world. As another great icon of space has made clear, there is no try.

So, what shall we do? Are we really curious? Has Curiosity challenged our curiosity? Are you amused and amazed, or are you neither?

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