The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that as the rover Curiosity neared the surface of Mars on Sunday evening, the engineer in charge of its guidance and control realized that the craft required a course correction – of 10 feet. That is, after traveling 352 million miles.
Curiosity is the size of a small car and amounts to a mobile geochemistry lab, complete with plutonium power source. It entered the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph after an eight-month journey through space and ultimately was lowered to the surface in a complex arrangement called a Sky Crane. The entire landing went off without a hitch, and Curiosity appears to be functioning properly.
It was a spectacular success for a country that could use just such a tonic. It also was a reminder that for all the chest-thumping and posturing about American exceptionalism that accompanies an election year, the phrase has meaning. No other country does this kind of thing. No other country can.
It was a happy change for a summer of wildfire, drought, mass murder and partisan name-calling. And it was a true national success.
The Olympics also is a welcome break, of course, although too often its events are marred by jingoism, commercialism and controversy. But for all the talk of each nation’s medal count, even the biggest nations send only a few hundred entrants. And while most of the participants are admirable and fun to watch, few of us can legitimately aspire to join them.
As with the entire space program, however, Curiosity is a true national effort. For starters, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration figures every American has $7 in this mission. More to the point, Curiosity was conceived, designed, built and operated by everyday Americans – more than 7,000 of them in 31 states.
Even among the healthiest and most dedicated athletes, going to the Olympics is a rarely attained dream. Becoming one of the engineers and scientists working for or with NASA takes brains and hard work, but not a perfect physique or freakish DNA.
Smart and educated but otherwise ordinary Americans did this. And for that we can all be proud.