On the night of Aug. 5, I was privileged to watch as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team brought NASA’s Curiosity rover to a perfect landing on Mars. From launch on an Atlas 5 to gentle touchdown, this program has inspired and captured the imagination of the American people. And I saw hundreds of brilliant JPLers sharing tears of joy, hugs and exultant smiles. Curiosity’s landing was a wonderful moment.
I’ve been in the space business for over 40 years. For our community, launch and touchdown provide the biggest challenges and the most exhilarating, heart-pumping excitement. But I’ve also received emails from friends and family sharing the images of Mars collected by Curiosity. They are not in the business but, just the same, are amazed by what our scientists and engineers have done. This excitement, engagement and pride is exactly what the United States needs to get back to underscoring a commitment to be the greatest spacefaring nation in the world.
Curiosity — what a great name for this rover, because it is man’s curiosity that has spurred the world to reach out to the unknown to see what is there, and to test the limits of technology to see where we can go. Without this curiosity and reach beyond our grasp, we would certainly not be the world we have become. And no nation epitomizes this curiosity more than the United States.
Russia was first to put an object in space and first to put a man in space, and had the first human to orbit the Earth. We certainly were not the greatest spacefaring nation in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy issued his famous Moon challenge: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
The inspiration of President Kennedy’s challenge transformed the United States — not just into the leader in space, but into a leader across the entire universe of technology. The Apollo program generated a huge work force, anchored by approximately 400,000 engineers. When these and Apollo’s children entered the work force, we transformed our economy and lives in ways virtually no one could have imagined at the time — global communications and connectivity, weather forecasting and environmental monitoring, space exploration, precision navigation and timing. And the space technology revolution sparked a bevy of related tech revolutions that showered society with inventions, productivity increases and new ways of socializing across the 1980s, ’90s, and well into the last decade. This was a trillion-dollar dividend for a several hundred billion dollars invested.
Alas, we have taken hits in recent years, and are no longer the world leader in all space activities. We have to buy human space lift from Russia to get to the international space station, this after all the time and money we sank into its construction and operation. We have a graying work force, and we are not inspiring a next generation of young engineers to get in the space business. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
We again need something to inspire and organize us. I think a momentous event like the Curiosity landing and Mars exploration can serve as the catalyst. Achieving the delicate, multistep process required to get a heavy vehicle onto a distant planet with little atmosphere, all coming together perfectly, is an inspiring demonstration of what this great country can do. One of my early bosses likened the care and feeding of such space systems to replacing a sparkplug on a car while traveling at 65 miles an hour on the freeway. There are just not many other jobs where this excitement can be experienced.
I have read articles criticizing the $2.5 billion we spent on the Curiosity mission. Such discussions about spending the nation’s treasure are important, and ensuring the taxpayer receives a good return on the dollars invested in projects is a vital part of our political landscape. But if space exploration and tremendous engineering achievements can indeed inspire our nation, the return to our great country will dwarf the expenditures on these projects.
With the Apollo and the Moon missions, we built a generation of innovative engineers, and we have ridden their shoulders to become not just the leading spacefaring nation but the world’s leader in technology and innovation. As the late Neil Armstrong said, one of the great benefits of a grand challenge is that young minds in our own country and around the world now believe they can do great things. I truly hope that Curiosity spurs resurgence in science, technology, engineering, and math education and related work in America.
Thomas D. Taverney is senior vice president at SAIC and a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command.