There was no way that I could stay up to watch the dramatic events unfold as the Mars Science Lab‘s rover, Curiosity arrive on Mars. But when I woke up this morning, bleary-eyed, I grabbed my phone and checked Twitter and knew at once that Curiosity had arrived safely. I knew because Twitter looked different. Instead of the usual political commentary; instead of Olympic dramatics, or reports from writer-friends of progress or frustrations with various projects, my entire Twitter feed read like a resounding, stadium-shattering cheer for the Mars Science Lab and for Curiosity.
Once again, we have reached Mars.
Saying it that way makes it seem almost routine, but reaching Mars is anything but. And Curiosity is bigger and packed with more instruments than its predecessors. Shortly after skimming through all of the congratulations and thoughts on the landing, the Little Man came wandering into our room, still only half-awake. “Guess what happened last night?” I said to him.
“A robot landed on Mars.”
“Whoa!” he said.
I explained to him that Mars was another planet and that we sent the robot there to go explore. He asked if it went through outer space on a rocket and I told him that it did. I wasn’t sure how impressed he was by the fact until I dropped him off at school, and he said to his teacher, “A robot landed on Mars!” It is really rather extraordinary to live in times in which you can tell your kids something like that.
Glancing up at the bookshelf next to my desk are scores of issues of Astounding Science Fiction, going back to May 1939. In these issue are stories about space exploration, wars with alien life forms, all kinds of interplanetary adventures that must have seemed so exciting to a twelve-year old–say a kid born in 1927 or so–when he or she flipped through the magazine on the newsstands. The stories read a little dated today but are nonetheless packed with action and adventure–and occasionally some valiant efforts at real science. But the real thing seems so much more exciting. No, we are not fighting wars with aliens (thank goodness). No, there doesn’t appear to be any life on Mars. But we are no longer describing it in terms of just imagination. We’ve been there. We’ve taken pictures and video. We’ve seen the sun rise and set from the surface of the red planet. And I have to think that some of our willingness to make it so stemmed from sense of wonder stirred up inside those twelve year olds reading Astounding.
Astounding sometimes seems like an overly dramatic name for a science fiction magazine (perhaps that’s why the name was changed to Analog in 1960), but not on a morning like today. Curiosity‘s journey to Mars and its dramatic descent through the thin Martian atmosphere to its landing site are perhaps best described as astounding.
It represents exactly what we are capable of when we put our minds to it.