Monday, August 06, 2012

Mars Curiosity: Why such enthusiasm?

The good news from Mars has got me feeling curious this morning. Why are so many people excited about this particular mission after two plus decades of space shuttle missions that the media and public largely snoozed through?

Not that I'm complaining. Landing such a large and complex vehicle on another world is an amazing milestone in exploration and engineering. But why this mission, why now? After all, our species' ultimate future lies in space, so anything we can do to keep this kind of emotional investment flowing is important. With that in mind, I'd like to take a quick and dirty look at things that helped connect Curiosity with the public.

1. That amazing Seven Minutes of Terror video

Seven Minutes of Terror is great storytelling. It hits us with a dilemma right up front; it let's us know what's at stake; it gives us some short looks at passionate people who are involved in a high-stakes undertaking, and it's got a great production value feel to it. This five minute vid is high speed, low drag. It's an example of what NASA and JPL need to keep pumping out in the age of the internet.

2. Speaking of the internet: Free imagery!

Image courtesy of NASA / JPL. Public domain.

The internet has helped turn us into relentless daily consumers of beautiful images, and the current mating of the space program with High Definition cameras satisfies that particular urge in a very visceral way. The ability to distribute high-quality images from missions directly to the public is a major asset for the space program. One with a direct line to the hearts and minds of the world that has been well traveled by the previous Mars rover missions. People have grown used to seeing gorgeous images from the Red Planet, and they want more. Speaking of which...

3. MOAR rovers!!!

Image of  Mars spirit rover courtesy of NASA. Pubic domain.

For some reason people love rovers in away that just doesn't apply to other unmanned vehicles. Something about these lonely automated explorers rolling across the vast spaces of another world appeals to school children and adults alike. Maybe it's the arms and eye-like cameras, or maybe it's just the fact that they're land-going entities rather than void flyers, but we can connect with these robots in a way that we simply do not when it comes to probes like the Voyager craft or Galileo probe.

You may have noticed that so far none of these items have touched on the actual science of the mission. There's a reason for that. With the public, only us geeks are likely to come for the drama, but stay for the data. That's all right as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, it'd be great of Joe Six Pack or John Middleclass had a burning desire to know the geologic history of Mars or wonder about the presence of life there. And sometimes Joe Six Pack and John Office do get infected with the curiosity, but such instances are few and far between. Always have been, and baring some engineered change to human nature (which I'll admit, I'm kind of sort of hoping for), always will be.

So if having new imagery to look at first thing in the morning from a friendly rover crawling across the red world helps keep the public engaged, I'm all for it. After all, as they used to say "no bucks, no Buck Rogers."

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