It was a tale of two landings. McKayla Maroney may have wound up on her butt Sunday in London, but America also landed on Mars, and at roughly the same time if you were watching prime-time coverage of both events last night.
Not that this was terribly easy to do, as none of the major networks bothered to air the NASA triumph, insisting that reruns of"The Mentalist" and "Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition" made for such compelling TV that it wasn't worth breaking into them to show a room filled with Jet Propulsion Lab employees jumping around in teary-eyed wonder. Fortunately, the NASA channel (did you previously know there was such a thing? I did not) and KTLA showed a live stream, as did the Los Angeles Times website.
So there was a moment when this critic's family had to choose between seeing, in the relative real-time that is this summer's Olympics, Maroney's much-touted vault (we didn't know the results) and the touchdown of Curiousity, the largest spacecraft ever sent to another planet. We went with the successful Mars landing and DVRed the muffed Maroney landing.
PHOTOS: JPL's faces of joy
A lot is riding on the automated shoulders of Curiousity, including $2.5 billion, 10 years of work and the future of the space program, so the coverage was notable in its absence, representing the plunge that NASA has taken in the ratings of our collective imagination. Where once we lifted our eyes as then-President John Kennedy vowed that we would go to the moon and pored over the works of the recently deceased Ray Bradbury for notes on our possible future, now we just can't get that excited over early images of Martian craters.
Granted, Sunday night's landing was not at the visual or emotional level of the peeled-eye shine of Neil Armstrong's helmet or his big, bouncy footprints as he took that one small step, but some of the smartest people in the country have spent years figuring out how to effectively explore the Red Planet, and it seems, in early days anyway, that it might actually work. Watching as various team members narrated each landing stage -- "the parachute is deployed" -- was certainly more exciting (and in the end more rewarding) than listening to the breathless gymnastics commentators assure us that there was No Way Maroney was not going to win the gold medal.
And though it is always thrilling to see young athletes, American and non-, pull off miraculous feats of physical prowess, we do get to experience this on a regular basis. But how often do you get to watch a room filled with astrophysicists and engineers, all wearing matching blue shirts, no less, rise to their feet in a collective cheer, crying and hugging each other?
PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration
Not often enough, I say.
We'll give NBC a pass as it is already up to its ears in the complexities of "live coverage," but shame on you CBS and ABC for not preempting, even for a few minutes, to show the world (or at least the Pacific Standard Time world) a glimpse of ingenious and brainy triumph. Fox, already into its news hour, gave a nod to the "folks in Pasadena," which was almost more irritating than if they had not mentioned Curiousity at all. For one thing, much of the action was taking place at JPL, which is La Canada-Flintridge thankyouverymuch; for another, once upon a time the space program, like the Olympics, belonged to us all.