Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Gaze In Wild Wonder (UPDATE)

Depressed and saddened by the contraction of our national vision, the meanness and occasional idiocy of our politics, and the devout desire to remember our greatness as a country lies not in the banalities of commercial life but our ability to achieve what many thought impossible, I wrote this post back on June 11.
All we are currently offered by way of some consoling vision is the comfort of material gain.  We see so many threats around the globe, we no longer believe it possible to do much more than keep them at some arm's length, staving off the eventual disaster.

We have become more than cowardly.  We, as a people, have become blind.  We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people.  We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.
In the middle of Sunday night, the Mars rover, Curiosity, made its marvelous, maddening, successful descent to the surface of the fourth planet, using a robotic sky crane that lowered the one-ton vehicle to the surface on its own smarts.  Among the first photos they snapped was this one from its forward looking hazard cameras.
In the distance lies the mountain at the center of the crater in which Curiosity sits, and to which it is going to travel.  The plan is to sample the old rocks at the bottom, to see if there are any traces of organic compounds, a sign that, at the very least, conditions once existed that offered the possibility of Martian microbial life.  Knowing the planet was once warmer, the atmosphere denser, allowing running water to run long enough to cut deep channels across the planet's surface, we continue to wonder if we may have once had some kind of neighbors in the solar system.

I do not think it wrong to take a moment to celebrate our vicarious return to Mars on a parochial, national level.  True enough, from the Martian perspective, what is the United States?  Yet, among the residents of the third rock, who else has flung orbiters and landers and rovers to snap a photo or two, to taste the Martian wind and sand, to do what needs to be done to answer the question that may be the most fundamental question we human beings ask: Are we alone in the Universe?

We Americans are living in troubled times.  Mass death, global warming, drought, civil war abroad, the stupidity of our politics at home that mocks those who have set aside their lives to defend our land and way of life, and the sense that we just can't do even the most basic tasks of self-governance: these are the realities that seem to mock our public life.  Curiosity, its engines getting ready to fire up and head out on its slow, deliberate journey across the bottom of a crater on another world, reminds us that this litany of national failure doesn't tell the whole picture.  We are a people who do indeed know how to do great things, marvelous things, wonderful things that make us all gaze in wonder at new places no one has ever seen, discovering things no one has ever known.

Over the next several days, as the first color, panoramic images come back from the many cameras on Curiosity, we all should stand and cheer ourselves.  In a time when we think we can no longer accomplish much of anything, Curiosity's pictures remind us that we do the spectacular quite well.

UPDATE:  JPL managed to piece together the following video from 297 still images Curiosity snapped as it descended.  It is truly spectacular.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More