Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser: Landing the "Curiosity" rover and the importance of Literature in Mars Exploration

Last night and early this morning was a historic moment in human ingenuity. The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab landed the Curiosity rover, the size of a typical automobile, on the surface of Mars. It is to this date the largest machine ever to land on the Martian surface, its mission: to search for signs of past life on our neighboring "Red" planet. The entire event was made available to the public by NASA TV, and I, along with thousands of others, was able to watch the entire broadcast from my living room, while also watching the entire simulated experience on Eyes on the Solar System, an absolutely amazing website created by NASA to give the viewer an up close and personal perspective of our home solar system and all the crazy machines monitoring it. It truly made me feel like I was part of the entire endeavor.
I find it difficult to find the correct words that sum up the actual full impact of the eight years of research and effort that culminated to the successful landing of Curiosity that the world witnessed last night. I will settle in saying that it was an outstanding achievement that marks our evolution as a thinking, wondering, dreaming species. What I found the most inspiring, however, was not exactly the landing itself, but the reaction of the gathering of people that made the entire event possible.
This is just one image of the comraderie that took place last night. Aside from our innovations, our accomplishments, it's the reaction of making the entire thing possible that makes the Curiosity landing so awe-inspiring. Dreams becoming reality. Amazing.

What we learned last night is that it takes the cooperation and unity of an entire gathering of people to make amazing things possible in our world, and now worlds. From the tears that were streaming down the faces of the participants at JPL, to the hugs, clapping, yells of absolute delight, and knowing nods of the head, that eight years of work and extreme attention to detail was finally made successful is what made the viewing of this broadcast probably the best thing I've ever witnessed on television. 
Yet, this is just my introduction to what I really want to talk about.

We are at the point in time now where for centuries we have been dreaming of the possibilities of the "Red" planet. In the August 2012 issue of Astronomy Magazine, Karri Ferron has written an amazing article, "The Red Planet's Colorful Past," that gives us an amazing retrospective glance at just what people have been imagining Mars may contain or support for the past...oh, I don't know...five or so centuries? It's subscriber content only, but this link will give you an idea of what Ferron has so elegantly summarized of humanity's past view of Mars.

 Yet, last night, in what I've come to think of as the "pre-game" show, NASA TV didn't focus so much on the past as much as they focused upon the future of the space program and science technology in general in the United States. What I noticed was that they were pushing really hard for the promotion of "STEM" education: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. They emphasized the space program's lack of funding, and how the U.S. is falling behind in the areas of science and technology compared to the rest of the world. Science's diminishing importance in our national culture seems to have been their main concern, and their solution to resurrecting the space program's national influence is located in "STEM" education. 

As much as I appreciate the amazingly informative "Mars in a Minute" shorts they created and the pieces that focused on Science education within public schools, where I feel NASA fell short in their promotion of the Martian science was the incredibly important role literature has devoted to it. 

Let's face it, when it comes to curiosity and intrigue, literature has given the exploration of space, especially of Mars, the best advertising campaign probably ever conducted throughout modern history; yet, when it comes to the funding of educational programs, the importance of literature's role in the exploration of Mars is overlooked. Literature's role in the promotion of Science in general does not seem to be taken seriously, and I believe this needs to be changed. I, for one, am incredibly supportive of all the exploration missions NASA conducts, and the root of that support comes from my enthusiasm for Science Fiction Literature. 

I think that this is an area NASA needs to explore, not just because I feel that the liberal arts are getting the short end of the stick even more so than science when it comes to academic funding, but also because imagination, the arts, and science have always been intertwined. From the earliest days of our ability to daydream, we have looked upon the stars in the night's sky and have thought, "Somewhere, up there, is a place where we would like to be." It is the place where we locate our dreams and our nightmares, our gods and our demons, and exploring the human element within our relationship to the cosmos is as important as physically exploring the universe itself. Literature asks the philosophical question of "Why?" Why do we go to seemingly impossible lengths to explore the unknown? What exactly are we satisfying within ourselves when we partake in these amazing adventures? What's going to happen after we get there? It can be said that the entire basis of our curiosity regarding the rest of the universe comes from our ability to imagine what it may be like, and those imaginings have always come into fruition through literature, they have inspired us to make dreams reality. 

From Heinlein's creation of a character such as Valentine Smith, to Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, and even Kim Stanley-Robison's Mars Trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, writers have invested time in not only thinking about the sociological and psychological impact the exploration of our "Red" neighbor will have on our society and culture, but they have also researched the hard scientific facts that Martian exploration is based upon. Valentine Smith has to physically adapt to Earth's gravity after living in Mars g for the majority of his life, and Stanley-Robinson's series is almost comprised completely of the scientific work it would take to first get to the planet, and then to make it habitable to human life. These authors successfully merge two subject areas and ultimately communicate to the reader how human metaphysical experience and the physical reality of science are intertwined. I think that to overlook the relationship literature has to science sells the importance of what NASA seeks to accomplish in these explorations, and what they mean for the entire human race, short. 

In the pushing of STEM education I hope that someone, somewhere in our little blue dot realizes that none of this would have been possible if there wasn't an artist or a writer to dream it up. As much as we need a new generation of scientists, we need artists to add fuel to the fire, to offer up some improbable, yet possible ideas for the future of humanity. The fiction dedicated to Mars exploration has been as influential as the science which brings it to life, and where would we be as a species without those who can imagine possibilities and their cohorts that translate those dreams into physical reality?

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