I wasn’t around for the moon landings. I wasn’t around for Sagan’s Cosmos. I wasn’t around for the Voyager missions, or the Pale Blue Dot. I was born into a world of technological marvels, but I haven’t been around for something great, something to pin my finger on and state as all the proof that anyone would ever need to justify my love for scientific endeavour. All that changed last week.
On the 6th August, the Curiosity probe was on final approach to the Red Planet. I stayed up until Three A.M, when the live feed from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory came online, and then proceeded to follow it for every second of the three hour countdown until Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere. Then, sitting at the foot of my bed, clad in my dressing gown with light streaming in through the curtains and headphones clamped over my ears, I watched with breath as baited as that of the JPL controllers as the Seven Minutes of Terror ticked by in silence.
The reaction stirred up by touchdown was truly a sight to behold, and sent me punching the air and bouncing on the balls of my feet as quietly as my cluttered bedroom allowed. Minutes later,when the first images from the surface of another planet started to come through, I sensed history being made, another step being taken to push back the boundaries of the unknown; felt in my bones that Hollywood’s grandest epics didn’t hold a candle to such raw discovery.
Beneath the foolish grin that refused to leave my cheeks, I was disheartened only by the fact that more of we Europeans couldn’t watch such a thing live on our screens. An event such as this brought into focus everything that drove me to being a student of Science.
In principle, it takes only one truly great thing in a period of decades to win the hearts and minds of a generation. These moments prove that despite economic hardship, unemployment, terrorism, famine, disease and war, devoting the time and resources required for awesome feats such as these is worth it.
But has Curiosity been our light in the darkness? It certainly seems worthy, with hundreds of people from all walks of life having worked tirelessly for the better part of a decade to bring their goals to fruition.
But has it gained the kind of recognition that it deserves? Perhaps the world grown too jaded to appreciate the true scale of a feat such as even reaching orbit. Perhaps, as I’ve observed, Curiosity will glean no more attention from the younger generations of the western world than idle chit-chat passed in the corridor.
With popular culture’s increasing fixation on unskilled role-models in lieu of the classical brain-surgeons and astronauts, can enough be done in time to ensure that enough of we buddings scientists don’t stray from the path?
It remains to be seen. Only time will reveal Curiosity’s legacy, along with the legacies of the Space Shuttle Program, the ISS and a host of other testaments to what can result from science in its purest form; international cooperation in the pursuit of enlightenment, devoid of the the notions of the Fast Buck and espionage.
In our world, what could be a better statement about our species than acting upon the simple act of exploration? If, while living under the constant threats of overpopulation, famine, climate change the energy crisis, we can still find time to look upon the stars, and wonder, then there will always be hope for us.