They called it the "seven minutes or terror" for the complex maneuverings and rocket blasts conducted in the final moments of a 354 million mile journey from home, but the Curiosity rover executed its landing flawlessly. Those who doubted U.S. preeminence in space exploration — or even in science and engineering in an era of outsourcing and global competition — should pay heed.
Too bad there was no film crew on the surface of Mars (at least as far as we distant earthlings can tell) to capture this extraordinary moment. It was an Olympic dismount deserving of gold — a descent that featured not only the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed but 76 pyrotechnic explosions and a "sky crane" that lowered the rover from the hovering capsule that carried it.
The first image transmitted from the Curiosity was, by itself, hardly breath-taking — a fish-eyed view of the nearby Martian soil and of itself. But in the days and months ahead, the $2.5 billion mission will produce far more interesting results as it tools around the surface searching for evidence of whether the planet is, or ever was, habitable.
In this, Curiosity may be the critical stepping stone to one day landing men on Mars, a seemingly-impossible challenge that feels a whole lot more possible with Monday's perfect landing. The nuclear-powered Rover will act as a mobile laboratory sampling soil, vaporizing rock and checking the atmosphere, beaming results 154 million miles to Earth.
Too bad the landing couldn't be timed to coincide with the U.S. school year. Students and teachers should be watching and listening in rapt attention. With all due respect to athletic events or the hit movies or music of the summer or whatever else occupies the public's imagination in the dog days of August, the Curiosity and the ingenuity that went into it deserve undivided attention in the nation's classrooms.
While the U.S. may exit London this week with more medals than any other nation, it's position in science in math education is not quite so exulted. A recent study from
It's not just basic math but high-level science where the U.S. lags its peers, with nations like Brazil and Latvia outpacing the world's greatest super-power. That so-so performance has raised serious concerns about how the U.S. can compete in a 21st century global economy increasingly driven by technological innovation.