NASA success, Olympic triumphs: How can we not be inspired?

Thursday, August 23, 2012 - 13:00
The Mars rover “Curiosity” is depicted in this artist’s rendering provided by NASA. The rover set down on the Red Planet on Aug. 6.

After learning by radio that NASA had successfully landed a 2,000-lb. rover on Mars, I quickly turned on the television — not to see the unmanned craft’s first photos — but to see the reaction by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team in Pasadena, Calif. They were literally bouncing off the ceiling with excitement and jubilation.

Their exultation was well deserved. The $2.5 billion mission involved the work of more than 5,000 people from 37 states, some of whom worked on it for 10 years. The scientific rover, called “Curiosity,” is the largest and most advanced spacecraft ever sent to another planet. Curiosity is equipped with lasers, drills and a full-fledged geochemistry lab designed to determine if microbial life ever existed on this cold, dry planet — at an average distance of about 225 million miles from Earth.

The landing sequence, which NASA dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” required the largest supersonic parachute every deployed in space, a perilous-looking “sky crane” and 76 pyrotechnic explosions. The powered, computer-controlled descent and gentle lowering of the rover onto the Martian surface by cable was one of the most complex space maneuvers NASA has ever performed — and it was executed flawlessly.

Some believe Curiosity will revolutionize deep-space science, not only in searching for indications that Mars was once capable of sustaining life as we know it, but in paving the way for the next critical steps in exploration, soil sample returns, sending astronauts to Mars and perhaps colonization.

The first photographs from Curiosity show a barren landscape and mountains quite similar to the Mojave Desert in California. But for me, the most striking image so far has been the faces — faces of brilliant, young engineers and scientists at JPL who put their heart and soul into what seemed like a daunting, insurmountable challenge — people who stayed with it, month after month, year after year, demonstrating one of humankind’s most striking characteristics: perseverance. We just don’t give up.

The Olympian athletes epitomize the word perseverance. On the same week as NASA’s success, I watched TV coverage and saw the tears of pride and joy on the faces of Olympians — not just those from the U.S., but other countries — as they stood on the podium to receive recognition for their incredible performances, and, ultimately, for their years of sacrifice and toil.

If there were 10 runners or gymnasts in any one event and only three received medals, I was not only deeply moved by those winners, but also by the other seven. Anyone competing, not just the medal winners, represents the very best of humanity. They all deserve accolades.

The spectacular physical feats of these Olympians are analogous to pioneers in America’s space program, from test pilot Chuck Yeager, who piloted the X-15 rocket plane, to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, to Neil Armstrong, who was the first human to step onto the moon, and finally, NASA’s JPL team that placed rovers “Spirit,” “Opportunity,” and now “Curiosity”on the surface of Mars.

There is violence and strife in the Middle East and other parts of the world, global economies are unstable and the future for many people is uncertain. But we do have events like the recent Mars landing and the incredible physical feats of Olympian champions to remind us that human beings are capable of great things.


And one of our greatest attributes, perhaps the most admirable quality we possess:

Once the steely-eyed JPL engineer puts an automobile-sized rover safely on the surface of a planet more than 220 million miles away; once an athlete like Usain Bolt sets world records for the 100 and 200 meter dashes; once someone like the late Steve Jobs innovates the next generation of information technology, they all inevitably ask: “What’s next?”


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, e-mail him at [email protected].

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