Can Curiosity Mars mission inspire like Apollo?

Can Curiosity Mars mission inspire like Apollo?
NASA scientists smile after NASA's Administrator Charles Bolden, seen on video projection on top left, debuted the first recorded human voice that traveled from Earth to another planet and back, as Bolden radioed the rover on Mars and back to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) on Earth, during a briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, Aug. 27, 2012. From left: Mike Malin, imaging scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist, California Institute of Technology, Paul Mahaffy, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Dr. Chad Edwards, Chief Telecommunications Engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at JPL. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(AP)—Neil Armstrong inspired millions with his moonwalk. Can a feisty robotic rover exploring Mars do the same for another generation? With manned missions beyond the International Space Station on hold, the spotlight has turned on machines.

While it did not rise to Armstrong's "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," interest was so high in the rover Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" approach to the red planet earlier this month that NASA's website crashed after receiving nearly 2 billion hits. The rover last week beamed home photographs of its first wheel tracks on the since its daredevil landing

"There's something exciting about reaching another place in the solar system. If you think about the kind of interest the landing of Curiosity had, you get a sense of that," said Smithsonian Institution space curator Roger Launius. It wasn't on the same level as Armstrong's feat, "but it was pretty darn exciting," he said.

When Armstrong, and then fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, stepped on the moon on July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million people watched and listened. "Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us," recalled Aldrin after Armstrong's death Saturday.

Early in the Space Age, the Mercury, Gemini and were the public face of NASA's space endeavor while the unmanned lunar missions that paved the way were in the shadows. The public craved adventure and the delivered. Aiming for the moon was new and exciting—not to mention dangerous—and the U.S. was locked in a Cold War space race with the Soviets.

Next, the space shuttle ferried a new crop of astronauts to low-Earth orbit, but after three decades of service, it became routine. And the Cold War thawed with the Russians and Americans cooperating on the Russian space station Mir and the .

With the space shuttle fleet retired, the space station is all that's left. Its crew of six for the most part quietly goes about doing its job about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the Earth. President Barack Obama nixed plans for returning astronauts to the moon in favor of landing on an asteroid and eventually Mars.

These days, space exploration is carried out by robotic spacecraft—commanded by human handlers on Earth. Advances in technology have allowed unmanned spacecraft to go farther and peer deeper, with craft circling Mercury, Saturn, and the asteroid Vesta, and others headed for Jupiter and dwarf planet Pluto. The twin Voyager craft are still going strong at the fringes of the solar system 35 years after their launch in 1977.

Can Curiosity Mars mission inspire like Apollo?
NASA scientists comment on the newest image of the tracks left by NASA's Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, Aug. 27, 2012. From left: Dave Lavery, Program Executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA Headquarters, Mike Malin, imaging scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist, California Institute of Technology, Paul Mahaffy, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Dr. Chad Edwards, Chief Telecommunications Engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at JPL. The Mars image was taken by a front Hazard-Avoidance camera, which has a fisheye lens. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

American University space policy analyst Howard McCurdy said today's generation of explorers was raised on technology and tends to get more jazzed about delivering a car-size rover to Mars.

"Robotic exploration has taken more of a center stage," he said. "It gets more publicity now than the International Space Station."

When the first Mars rover Sojourner landed in 1997, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke rephrased Armstrong's famous line and said the event was "one small step for the rover."

Three other rovers have followed including Curiosity, which landed Aug. 5 by executing an intricate routine that ended with it being lowered by cables to the surface. Curiosity's acrobatics proved so popular that its Twitter followers surged from 120,000 the eve of landing to more than a million (the tweets are being written by the public affairs office at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5-billion mission.)

Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger said Monday the wheel prints on Mars may turn out to be an iconic image just like those first boot prints on the lunar surface.

"Instead of a human, it's a robot pretty much doing the same thing," he said.

Henry Lambright, a professor of public policy and scholar at Syracuse University, said while Curiosity is inspiring, the world still needs to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

"It can't inspire to the degree that Apollo did because a robot can't inspire the way a man can," Lambright said.

On Monday, NASA played a recording from Administrator Charles Bolden that had been sent up to the rover on Mars and relayed back to Earth. In it, he thanked scientists and engineers for their achievement.

David Lavery of NASA headquarters said the hope is that someone will be inspired by Bolden's message and become the first human to stand on Mars.

"Like the great , they'll be able to speak aloud—the first person at that point, of the next giant leap in human exploration," he said.

Explore further

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Aug 28, 2012
No. Too technical, not enough political hype nor cachet that the majority who have trouble programming their VCR will find it incomprehensible.

Aug 28, 2012
Can Curiosity Mars mission inspire like Apollo

Probably not. Inspiration leads to the will to dig into a subject long term ("daddy, I wanna be an astronaut when I grow up" - or similar).
Today superficial information on such an event is just plastered on people to the point where they feel immediately knowledgeable (falsely so) - and then content about their 'knowledge' (Ask most people what the laser zapper does and they know. Ask them what the ChemCam does, and HOW it does it and what the results actually look like and how you interpret them and you draw a blank. And that's not even the hard part)

The ones who actually go on from there to dig into the nitty gritty of what is actually the hard work involved are few - and those would have done so anyways.

Aug 28, 2012
His most notable activity was at the culmination of the Apollo program. Back in the beginning, there were other reasons why most Americans were inspired by and supported the program.
Regarding robots vs. humans, the prospect of littering the solar system with people is viscerally satisfying. It's that little egoistic voice in my hind-brain.

Honestly though, spending resources perfecting increasingly autonomous machines is a better use of those resources. Men will eventually follow, but shouldn't be first.

Aug 28, 2012
Yes, it can, but it needs to find something surprising. Ordinary looking rocks will not inspire many. And they need a better and more accessible PR story that people can feel somehow part of. "We" went to the moon, remember. "Rovers" have gone to Mars.
And interest in the shuttle did not wane because it became "routine." it waned because it became boring and a dead end. The Apollo program was seen as the start of bigger and better things. That's what inspires. If Curiosity can find something that ignites world interest in going to Mars, then we can talk. I'm hoping that one of those little crenelated rocks is a seashell. Boy, I'm hoping. :-)

Aug 28, 2012
@Mayday - you got that right - a seashell, an ammonite or anything that can be said definitively to show that life has, or does, exist on Mars would ignite such high interest that, maybe, a global effort to land humans on Mars and establish a permanent colony soon would ensue. Hope springs eternal!

Aug 28, 2012
LariAnn, if they do find life on Mars, this would certainly be fabulously fascinating! But, unfortunately, Martian life would become a very strong argument for stopping and forbidding human visits and colonization for quite some time:


I'd love to see colonization! And if no Martian life is found, I think most likely colonization will move forward at some point in the next few decades. Although the above concerns are very serious problems, I doubt that they can stop us in the long run. Fascination and curiosity will have the upper hand.

If Martian life is found, I'm more doubtful.

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