No Cats Harmed in the Completion of this Mission

Brian Haywood, Staff Writer

In the words immortalized by Star Trek, space exploration is fundamentally important because it dares us to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In the case of the Mars rover Curiosity, this is only somewhat true; no real human being has actually set foot on the red planet, and landing a man-made machine on Mars is something that has already been done before by the rovers Opportunity and Spirit.

If that’s the case, why all the fanfare for something that’s not even very original?

It’s not because at over 5,000 pounds, Curiosity is the largest rover to ever be successfully sent to Mars. It’s not because the literal tons of extra cameras, drills and lasers packed on were innovative and state-of-the-art.

The reason, in fact, is that Curiosity’s landing on August 5 marked the last planned Martian expedition. A very large part of NASA’s future hinges on the success of this mission, and whether or not it leads to evidence of life.

The very notion of life on other planets strikes deep in the cores of our hearts. If life were to exist outside of Earth, not only would the discovery bring up thousands of new concepts, questions and theories, it would revitalize the badly malnourished American space program.

It’s no secret that over the last several years, federal funding for NASA has steadily decreased to a measly 1%. Recently, we’ve been experiencing lots of lasts: the last manned shuttle launch and the last rover to Mars, to name a few.

The board has been wiped clean, which is surprising when you consider all that space has done for us – and I’m not talking about Velcro.

Ask any scientist, and he will tell you that the most exciting things in all of science are happening outside of our atmosphere. So much of what we can learn about physics, about the earth, and about ourselves is in the dark, cold vacuum that makes up 99.9 percent of the universe.

Since the dawn of civilization, man has wanted to cross the nearest river, traverse faraway mountains, and sail across the seas. Now we’ve crossed billions of miles of the biggest ocean of all, not to mention, with something we’ve made and guided ourselves.

Not bad considering that a few hundred years ago, we hardly had the means to study anything out there.

OK. So Curiosity is on Mars, and we appreciate its significance, but what is it doing for us? The best part is that we are now reaping the rewards. Now that it is there, new pictures and information come in every day. We learn more and more. For all we know, we could find life there tomorrow. And if our generation doesn’t find anything significant? Well, maybe in a hundred more years, that big discovery will happen. But if our recent progress is any indication, it can only get better from here.