It’s really curious how our mental values work. When the latest Mars lander, Curiosity, successfully made it to the Martian surface yesterday, JPL Director Charles Elachi compared his engineering team to Olympic athletes: “This team came back with the gold.”
I’d say Elachi, and the rest of the public, had it ass backwards. If there was a significant event yesterday, it wasn’t a gold for Usain Bolt in the 100 meters or the failure of McKayla Maroney to get one in the vault; it was the amazing technological and human feat of propelling a 1-ton vehicle equipped with a laboratory over 325 million miles from Earth to Mars, and precisely landing the thing on the surface of a barren planet as softly as a baby in a crib. This is because, unlike the previous Rover missions to Mars, this vehicle is too big to be padded with balloons and bounced on the Martian surface; it would have fatally injured the equipment. Rather, Curiosity had to race through the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph in its container capsule, which then was braked to a stop hovering about 200 yards above the Martian surface, to then lower Curiosity by cables at this gentle 2 miles per hour so it could land safely in the Gale crater. This maneuver was so fraught with danger and uncertainty that NASA scientists described it as “7 minutes of terror.” No one knew if the cables would hold or be long enough, if the capsule would stop at the precise height required, if the rover would land right side up or ass over teakettle, or if the hovering rocket-powered capsule would disengage and crash where it was supposed to. There were no controls from the space center because communication was blacked out the entire time. The only controls were the ones programmed into the (I assume) computer doing the firing and lowering and disengaging. And yet, the whole thing worked as if it were a construction project around the corner being controlled by some engineer in the vehicle itself. If this doesn’t astonish even the most jaded luddite, then nothing ever will.
Of course there will be lots of nay sayers. Why waste $2.5 billion on a useless, unmanned flight to a dead planet when our deficit is so large and dangerous? Why indeed. For one thing, the six-wheeled Curiosity, a lab in itself, will be working over the next two years to explore the 96-mile-diameter crater and the mountain nearby. Because it’s in a mountainous area, it can probe for elements at different age-levels in Martian history, just as geologists do on Earth. It has a robotic arm with a power drill to poke into rocks and scoop up soil to test for elements like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen associated with water, or the possible life of organisms. Its laser can zap distant rocks, presumably to find out their age and/or composition—notable because the Martian surface, devoid of the distortions from living processes that have changed Earth utterly from its original state, is covered with far older, more pristine rocks than anything on Earth. With the rover’s ability to roam the surface, its camera will be able to take and send more precise and detailed photos than ever before. This, in short, is a look deeper into planetary and solar history—which is to say our own history—than anything ever attempted.
Of course, none of this can compare with the golds won by our athletes, or their emotional high-fives, or the fawning coverage by NBC’s team of “up close and personal” reporters trying desperately to elicit emotion or tears from the winners. After all, going faster through the water, or over a cinder track, or leaping higher or throwing a spear farther than one's rivals, is something the whole world must be primed to celebrate. Because doing such things proves to us that—well it must prove something. What I am afraid it mostly proves, though, is that we are all susceptible to hype and national breast-beating. What an amazing thing: Michael Phelps has won more gold medals than anyone in history. Whew! USA! USA! Well, it certainly must be nice for him, and for his mother. But must we be inundated with interview after interview, interspersed with commercials featuring this same swimmer day after day after day? How much do we really need to know about a guy who swims fast? or about post-pubescent (or is it pubescent-suspended?) girls who jump and swing from bars? Because the truth is, I much prefer just watching these athletes doing their thing, and marveling at what they can do, to hearing them babble about it. Once they get “up close and personal,” the thrill rapidly dissipates and what we come to realize is that these people are mostly freaks of nature. And when we learn that the Chinese government literally steals promising children from their parents and sequesters them in camps where they do nothing but practice all day every day for years under the stern guidance of their coaches, I want to call the whole thing child abuse. Heroes? Not in my book. And especially not when I also learn, from sports radical Dave Zirin, some of the more disturbing aspects of the Olympics in general. Zirin points out, for example, that not only is the IOC (International Olympic Committee) a quasi-nation state with a seat at the UN, it has arrogated to itself the power to trump national policies. So, when the Canadians in 2010 wanted to include women in some of their winter events along with men in Vancouver (which accords with their constitution), the IOC simply said no. It didn’t accord with IOC rules. And when this year an Australian athlete wanted to wear an aborigine flag on his t-shirt, the IOC forced him to remove it: the flag was not from an IOC-recognized nation. He could have worn a t-shirt with a corporate logo, but that’s apparently different. Worse, the IOC was apparently able to dictate to Great Britain a rule prohibiting local fish-and-chips establishments from including chips (French fries) with their fish in the vicinity of the Olympic center. Why? Because McDonald’s is one of the major Olympic sponsors, and McDonald’s insisted on having the exclusive franchise for French Fries at the Olympics.
That sort of puts the Olympics into perspective as, in essence, a three-week long commercial in the guise of heroics via athletic competition. And since even the athletes now can sell themselves while they compete (by wearing logos, etc.), the commercialism of the whole thing becomes even more pronounced. Is it any wonder the Brits were willing to shell out over $15 billion, at last count (with some estimates going as high as $38 billion) to put this extravaganza on?
Contrast that with the difficulty the Mars mission has justifying its puny $2.5 billion budget to an ignorant Congress, even after that gold-plated landing, even after traveling 325 million miles to a never-before-seen landscape, even with the possibility of a breathtaking leap forward in our comprehension of our solar system and ourselves, and you have a pretty good measure of what counts in our world.