The technology supporting NASA’s work back in the '60s was stunningly cutting edge and so far out of our daily experience that we couldn’t help but be amazed. Space science still is cutting edge, but we experience so much technological innovation each day that our capacity to be amazed comes with a very high bar.
For those reasons, space exploration has become just another story, not The Story. That’s too bad, because when one stops and thinks about Curiosity’s mission, it’s an incredible feat. And the potential it provides for advancing understanding of our solar system and life is far reaching.
Click image of bored astronaut
There was a time, of course, when our world almost stood still for the latest marvel of space exploration. Gemini and Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s were national events that found us huddled around our televisions in worshipful awe.
But today, achievements such as Curiosity’s long journey and smooth landing, fantastically complex as they are, draw hardly a yawn from the news media and the public. There are reasons for this, of course. In the ’60s, space exploration was a proxy battle in the Cold War, with each successful advance a victory of one-upsmanship with the Soviets.
Media was concentrated around the three networks and space launches and moon landings made great theater on the tube. Walter Cronkite and other legendary news anchors were nearly as mythic as the famous astronaut heroes they reported on.
President George W. Bush saw the potential for deep space exploration, and both the emotional and technological benefits it would spin off. President Obama, faced with more budget worries, has been far less interested in space.
That’s a concern, because space science has always been our nation’s greatest research and development lab, spinning off technological innovation that spurred advances all across the industrial spectrum.
We hope the wonder of Curiosity’s mission, and the wonders it may unveil in the coming months, rekindle a national enthusiasm for space science. Yes, it’s a different time than when Apollo missions kept us enthralled, but our need to be amazed by what lies at distant frontiers — and inspired by the technological quest — still exists.