Monday, August 13, 2012

Being Excited Over Mars Mission

Last Sunday, August 5th, I took a break from the Olympics to watch the landing of Curiosity (NASA's most recent Rover/Explorer) on Mars.

Now, I have to tell you I'm a BIG fan of the Space Program and always have been. Some of my earliest memories include watching the last Mercury launch, all of the Gemini & Apollo launches - and yes, I still remember where I was when I heard "The Eagle has landed" on the moon. At heart I believe one of the greatest gifts of God to mankind is our (seemingly) innate desire for exploration - whether this is exploration of outer space, the ocean, biology, geology, etc., etc. And I for one believe this is one distinct proof that "God is like this," but more importantly: evidence that we are created in the Image of God!

I have no intention of turning this into a sermon, but I recall two of the particular opening verses in the service of Evening Prayer (BCP 1979):

Yours is the day, O God, yours also the night; you established the moon and the sun. You fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
Psalm 74:15, 16


Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon
the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name. Amos 5:8

Back to Sunday night...
The thing that first impressed me is that this mission (yes I know its just a rover...) is the most complex space mission in history. Certainly more complex missions will come... but this one tops the charts! The fact that because of the distance, everything involved in the landing had to be accomplished on its own (to see these complexities watch the short clip below).

It was fascinating to watch the Control Room react with cheers - followed by immediate stress - as each part functioned during the descent: "Curiosity has entered the atmosphere" (Cheers! Will the parachute deploy?) "The parachute has deployed" (Cheers! Will the heat shield separate?) "The heat shield has separated!" (Cheers! Will the rockets fire?) ... and so on... until "Curiosity is on the surface!" BIG BIG CHEERS! Everything worked right and as planned! Great job guys and gals!

Now that the "terror" is over the real exploration can begin. And already more and more amazing photos are coming in.  And that leads me to Wednesday...

Wednesday night...
On Wednesday as I was talking about my interest in the mission, a parishioner shared, "Well, you know, it is an amazing thing; but when I think of all the things we could have done with that money here, it seems like such a waste." OUCH! He went on to say, "Yes we went to the moon and now we have digital watches... big deal." OUCH again!

But that got me thinking...

Sunday night one of the commentators said something like, "If any one part of the landing process fails we've just sent a billion-dollar rock to Mars!"

So let's use that figure for the sake of argument - I have no idea how much the Curiosity mission actually cost - but it's an easy one to use. Let's also say before the launch three years of planning went into this effort - so (again for the sake of argument) we're talking a billion dollars over nearly 4 years.

To be honest, my friend brings up an important point: there are concerns here on earth that need to be addressed. And certainly any of them would have benefited had they been given this money to work with. BUT... Let's be clear about a few things...
  1. Space exploration is not an either/or situation: Just because a billion dollars was spent on this mission doesn't mean that we ignored concerns here! It wasn't like we had a choice: Should we go to Mars OR cure cancer? Which one do you want to do? Using that as an example, we are working on cancer research; and, how much do you think was spent on cancer research over the last 4-years? I suspect - but I don't know for certain - I suspect it was way more than a billion dollars!
  2. Space exploration has multiple benefits beyond "digital watches"! Consider for a moment all the education that all these scientists have had? Universities have benefited from having students. Teachers and professors have had jobs teaching them over the years. Scientific research inspires our students to learn and grow professionally. Along with that, how many people were employed who built the Rover and the Rocket? I also recently saw a report interviewing the next generation of geologists and scientists - still students - who are preparing to work on this project. Seems to me - and if you in the least way thing education is an important thing - this is a good thing to see! But along with this...Having interest in higher education and the sciences means that others - who are not interested in space exploration but may be inspired to do other things (like cure cancer) have their place too!
  3. Amazing achievements - even in space - prove that we can do amazing things in other areas as well. The old saying was, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we.... whatever?" And if we can land a car-sized explorer on Mars, why can't we cure cancer, end disease and poverty? Why can't we? There is no reason we can't. None at all. And let's not forget that there are amazingly talented people at work on these things (and more) right now!
So here's to all you scientists out there! Keep up the good work! As the video says "Dare Mighty Things" - and keep doing that whatever your field!

And let me also say to those in the Arts...
who may think this is all about Science and Technology... It's not!  Human achievement is inspired by the Arts, and the Arts inspire us too! With education and Universities the Arts live on... and you musicians, actors, and artists feed our imaginations! To "dare" is to "imagine"!

It's all connected together. It's supposed to be.