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Mars mission: The whole world is watching

August 05, 2012|By Jon Bardin
  • June Lockhart of TV's "Lost in Space" walks through JPL.
June Lockhart of TV's "Lost in Space" walks through JPL. (Patrick T. Fallon /Los Angeles…)

It’s just under three hours until the Mars rover Curiosity touches down on Mars, and things outside mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge are picking up.

Scientists are milling about nervously, the fate of the vehicle now out of their control, and hundreds of journalists await word on the success or failure of the mission. The hip-hop star Will.i.am is standing with shuttle astronaut Leland Melvin in front of a rover model, listening attentively to a JPL scientist describe the mission in detail.

The scene emphasizes what will always be provocative about space exploration and NASA’s missions to Mars. Like other scientific fields, the work involves years of slow progress. But space exploration is special because it has major, visually arresting, pre-scheduled events like this one — those years of incremental progress come to a head on one day, at one time, allowing the media and celebrities to show up.

And they're live-streamed for the entire world to see online and even on the big screen in Times Square.

The landing of Curiosity has been preceded by months of anticipation and news coverage. The hashtag “MSL” for Mars Space Laboratory is currently topping the list of trending topics. The world is watching.

This goes against the archetypal scientific moment: the eureka moment, which might arrive in the shower or in traffic. With other much-anticipated scientific discoveries, like the sequencing of the human genome, news conferences are announced only after the deed is done. Tonight, thousands of people will know at the same time the JPL scientists do whether the rover safely landed. Nobody watched Francis Collins’ and Craig Venter’s teams crack the genetic code live (and if they had, it probably would have been pretty boring).

This, more than anything, may be why NASA’s missions to Mars continue to capture the public imagination: Tonight, we will all get to see a grand scientific experiment unfold before our eyes.

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