Curiosity rover sticks the landing

Our view: NASA's daring mission to the Red Planet should inspire Americans, who lag in basic science and math education

August 06, 2012

They called it the "seven minutes or terror" for the complex maneuverings and rocket blasts conducted in the final moments of a 354 million mile journey from home, but the Curiosity rover executed its landing flawlessly. Those who doubted U.S. preeminence in space exploration — or even in science and engineering in an era of outsourcing and global competition — should pay heed.

Too bad there was no film crew on the surface of Mars (at least as far as we distant earthlings can tell) to capture this extraordinary moment. It was an Olympic dismount deserving of gold — a descent that featured not only the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed but 76 pyrotechnic explosions and a "sky crane" that lowered the rover from the hovering capsule that carried it.

Small wonder that the roar of excitement that erupted from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 1:30 a.m. Baltimore time on Monday — the high-fives and tears of joy — looked like the roomful of scientists and engineers had just beaten Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and the U.S. women's gymnastics team wrapped up into one. NASA may have landed rovers on the Red Planet before, but they pale in comparison to what Curiosity is capable of doing.

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. described the moment as a "huge day for the American people," and we hope the American public will appreciate what scientists have accomplished in landing the one-ton vehicle, a device the size of a car and many times larger than its predecessors with far greater capabilities, so far from home.

The first image transmitted from the Curiosity was, by itself, hardly breath-taking — a fish-eyed view of the nearby Martian soil and of itself. But in the days and months ahead, the $2.5 billion mission will produce far more interesting results as it tools around the surface searching for evidence of whether the planet is, or ever was, habitable.

In this, Curiosity may be the critical stepping stone to one day landing men on Mars, a seemingly-impossible challenge that feels a whole lot more possible with Monday's perfect landing. The nuclear-powered Rover will act as a mobile laboratory sampling soil, vaporizing rock and checking the atmosphere, beaming results 154 million miles to Earth.

Too bad the landing couldn't be timed to coincide with the U.S. school year. Students and teachers should be watching and listening in rapt attention. With all due respect to athletic events or the hit movies or music of the summer or whatever else occupies the public's imagination in the dog days of August, the Curiosity and the ingenuity that went into it deserve undivided attention in the nation's classrooms.

While the U.S. may exit London this week with more medals than any other nation, it's position in science in math education is not quite so exulted. A recent study from Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance pegs the U.S. rank at 25th in math and 17th in science. And while science education has shown recent signs of improvement, it's actually improving faster in other countries, the same study notes.

It's not just basic math but high-level science where the U.S. lags its peers, with nations like Brazil and Latvia outpacing the world's greatest super-power. That so-so performance has raised serious concerns about how the U.S. can compete in a 21st century global economy increasingly driven by technological innovation.

But just as Michael Phelps' exploits in the swimming pool have helped inspire a generation of youngsters to compete in that venue, perhaps the Curiosity can raise awareness of what those who study science and math can accomplish as well. Olympic gold is nice, but what all those NASA engineers in their polo shirts and headsets have done is of far more lasting importance to the human race.

As Curiosity explores Gale Crater for the next 687 days, scientists will unlock several billions of years of history on Mars. What they discover could transform our understanding of the planet that most closely resembles Earth in our solar system. That may lack the visual excitement of a 10-second sprint down a 100-meter track or two minutes of butterfly in a pool, but it ought to give goose bumps, nonetheless.

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