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Space flight brings many benefits to those of us back on earth

By Arthur I. Cyr

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Watkins, MSl mission manager, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), left, Ken Edgett, Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) principal investigator, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, center, and Sarah Milkovich, HiRise investigation scientist, JPL, smile as an overview image shows the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, left, where Curiosity and its supporting hardware landed on the Martian surface, during a news briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

"It's too emotional for me," declared Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems while looking at new images from Mars. Malin operates the video camera of aptly named Curiosity, the laboratory on wheels that gently touched down on the planet on Sunday.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory arrived on target on schedule, after a journey of 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles. The one-ton nuclear-powered vehicle is much larger and heavier than earlier Mars probes, and carries an instrument array to collect information, including possible signs of life.

More than half the 40 Mars probes have been failures. Curiosity so far qualifies as an exceptional success. The complex interaction of an enormous parachute and powerful reverse jets to accomplish the soft landing of the big payload is unprecedented.

Those involved from the Jet Propulsion Lab and National Aeronautics and Space Administration should feel tremendous triumph, and the rest of us should reflect their pride. For NASA, new ground gained on Mars should provide high-ground advantage in Washington, where the agency faces severe budget cuts.

Earlier successful missions have included the little land rovers Opportunity and Spirit, which landed on Mars in 2004 and kept chugging along the landscape for years. When Opportunity stalled in a sand dune, engineers on Earth 100 million miles away were able to maneuver the vehicle back onto solid ground.

With relatively little publicity, President George W. Bush made distant space flight a much higher national priority again, to include a manned mission to Mars. The Obama administration has been much less interested in space exploration.

The political atmosphere for this adventure is much less favorable than a half-century ago, when President John F. Kennedy in 1961 dramatically committed to a manned mission to the Moon and back. Space generates far less public excitement than in JFK's time, in part because we are collectively much more cautious.

Space flight is inherently unpredictable. The Space Shuttle stayed relatively close to Earth, but two crews were lost. The only casualties of the Moon program were one brave crew incinerated in their capsule while still stationary on Earth.

Space exploration has important benefits beyond adding to fundamental scientific knowledge. U.S. space exploration was fueled initially by fixations and fears of the Cold War. Today, however, international partnerships are a growing reality.

Earlier precedents include the 2005 use of a Russian rocket in Kazakhstan to launch an American satellite. The powerful Soyuz-FG rocket was a product of the old Soviet Union. Even after the collapse of Soviet communism, this and other technological initiatives continued. The two-ton Galaxy 14 satellite was a capitalist tool built by Orbital Satellites Corp. for PanAmSat Holding Corp.

Science has always held an olive branch. During the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower fostered exchange between scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain, notably through the Pugwash program. In the late 1950s, science cooperation during the International Geophysical Year was leveraged by Ike into demilitarization of Antarctica, the first significant arms agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Beyond diplomacy, space exploration has spawned useful practical innovation. Component miniaturization for manned flight facilitated development of the personal computer and cellphone. Whenever you use one, you're saying hello to JFK.

You can check out the Mars mission at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ — and please remember Ken Edgett's human insight.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Email him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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