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And Now Mars

It’s been almost half a century since Apollo 11 carried Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong to the moon. I remember running to make sure I’d catch the actual landing on television. Like many who heard Neil Armstrong’s first words when he walked on the moon, I heard them incorrectly. They are much more moving the way he actually said them: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” That a single man was walking on the moon was a magnificent idea, even though it was awfully hard to fathom. That mankind, in a historical sense, was now moving into space was unfathomable.  In effect, many of us never did much with either of these ideas. Landing on the moon became merely one of many things that marked the 20th-century.

For me, part of the shock of watching men land on the moon came from their having done it on such a rickety-looking mechanical device as the Apollo Lunar Module, which looked exactly like something your kid brother might put together, down in the basement, to hand in as a seventh-grade science project. Part arachnid, part fire tower, part Peter Pan, the Apollo Lunar Module, which to this day sits silently on the moon’s surface, looked too jerry-built to count as cutting-edge design. Looking at photographs of it today, I think of it as decidedly 20th-century.

Not so the futuristic, auto-like machine that was lowered to Mars early this morning.

Powered by plutonium, the rover Curiosity looks like a design for the 21st century. Not only is the whole Mars landing endeavor a testimony to brilliant engineering (which most of us can’t begin to understand), it’s also a result of wide-ranging imaginations. Watch the NASA video above to see how many different and complex problems challenged the engineers, inevitably pushing them to come up with what amounts to an ingenious, multi-pronged landing strategy. (I concede that the use of a parachute near the end of the landing seems distinctly part of the previous century and doesn’t jibe with my paean to Curiosity’s design.

Inevitably, there will be those who grumble that the Mars mission costs too much, or that human beings should conquer illiteracy, poverty, and injustice before exploring outer space. If you’re like me, however, you feel both awed and humbled by the Mars landing. I like to think that in the cosmic scheme of things, mankind’s exploration of Mars atones just the littlest bit for the terrible things we so often do here on Earth.

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