Martian dune buggy stirs the imagination

NASA engineers celebrate Curiosity’s Aug. 6 arrival on Mars.

Just look at the people in that control room! This isn’t your father’s NASA. No rocket jockeys in white shirts and black ties. No thick-framed glasses or bulky IBM consoles. No chain-smoking engineers. These intrepid folk are the inheritors of an ambitious and marvelous space program. And thanks to today’s superb landing from the rover Curiosity, I feel like a kid again.

Like all of NASA’s creations, Curiosity is waiting to propel my imagination. I want to ride shotgun with that 2,000-lb. buggy as it explores the Martian countryside. I want to skirt the edge of the Gale Crater. (How much time can I spare for a pit that runs 96 miles across?) I want to search for water on Mars. I want to sink my fingers into red dirt. I want to see the night sky from the surface of an alien world. NASA gets to do all these things with their new rover and its cargo of high-tech toys.

My generation wasn’t around to see NASA’s finest on the Moon in what historians will call the golden age of space exploration. But we do have other stories to tell our kids. We were in high school when the Cassini probe was launched to Saturn. The vehicle delivers amazing imagery of the massive ringed planet and all her moons. Cassini also dropped a probe on Titan, the only moon in our system with an atmosphere. This mechanical marvel will be as famous as the Viking and Voyager probes.

Image sent from Curiosity after landing on Mars.

My generation was in college when astronauts built the International Space Station. I remember live construction footage on NASA TV and the tracking graphics as it sailed over the hemispheres. We were also present to witness sensor platforms like Hubble and Spitzer sending grand imagery of the cosmos. We’ve seen spacecraft launched to study the sun, and smaller rovers on the Martian landscape. We’ve seen the glorious pinnacle and honorable retirement of the shuttle fleet.

NASA is full of dreamers, and whatever they next launch into space, we’ll be here to see it.

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