Thursday, June 28, 2012

Curiously Red Summer

I’ve watched in earnest last night as the international players from the Iberian Peninsula displayed their silky smooth talents at this year's EURO 2012 Championship (Spain advances to the Finals on Sunday). EURO 2012, like the FIFA World Cup, comes once every four years albeit offset by two years to take up some of the boredom of having to wait for World Cup in 2014. That does however, align the years with the conduct of the Summer Olympics. This year the Summer Olympics are hosted in London and begin in late July. While we wait for lighting of the Olympic Torch there is no less drama as Country qualifiers are currently in full swing.

The human drama of athletic competition is all around us. Rafel Nadel won his 7th French Open Title on the red clay courts of the Roland Garros on June 11th as the the grass center court of Wimbledon awaits the crowning of a new champion on July 9th. And not that anyone needs a reminder, the Tour de France begins with its customary Prologue stage this Saturday in the Province of Liege Belgium to start 20 more grueling stages of cycling and hours of scenic rolling countryside streaming in HD to our computers and living rooms. Hopefully this year The Tour will not be too heavily tarnished by all the anti-doping rhetoric in the news lately.

Hours upon hours of athletic competition to keep us entertained and awestruck at the physical capabilities contained with our human bodies. The endurance, agility, strength, speed, coordination, timing and that’s not to mention the mental component of the competitions with the accompanying stress, guile, agony, and elation of those who emerge victorious. Yet with all this going on, I will also be watching another human endeavor taking place over the summer. For this event there is no olympic torch, although there will be fire. There will be no silver cup, although there will be a very red playing surface. There will be no anti-doping commission seeking to strip the players of their victories if trace amounts of banned substances surface in blood, in fact there will be no blood tests. There will also be no HD video of the event streaming into our living rooms. There will only be success or failure and “7 Minutes of Terror” as it has been called. First go watch this YouTube video and then we will continue.

Those seven minutes of terror however are only terrifying if you know what’s at stake. At stake is more than the 5 kg of Plutonium 238 that Curiosity carries with it as its power source. At stake is the crowning achievement of two decades of Mars exploration. Curiosity is the fourth Mars rover in the series that began with tiny Sojourner, added Spirit, and recently enhanced with the highly successful missions and lengthy service life of Opportunity. Curiosity, also call the Mars Science Laboratory, cost about $2.5B to develop and launch, So losing this exploration vehicle, as with other space vehicles which take years to conceive, design, develop, test, and launch would be devastating to the team behind the project. Losing Curiosity would also be a devastating blow to potential manned missions in a decade or two. As spectacular as the video demonstrated has been the engineering behind safely landing Curiosity on the red planet, the entire project has been an engineering marvel from start to finish. The objective, land one ton of payload on the surface of the Mars with enough science to be useful. The result -- a rover that is 10 feet long, weighing in 1,984 lbs, with a promised service life of 14 years, based on its radioactive power cell, packed with enough scientific instruments to keep the next several generations of post graduate Martian biologists, geologists, climatologist studying much more than what we can find in our own backyard.

There is no doubt, this is a crowning human achievement in engineering and science...since we have plenty of instruments circling Mars already and have been traipsing around in the red dust for many years, Curiosity’s landing may go unnoticed. With so much other cool stuff to entertain us this summer, not to detract from the athletic achievements and champions in the making, there ought to be a better way to get the word out. Perhaps, as with the success of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Curiosity will make its own successes. We could be in store for an untold number of scientific discoveries. I hope so. But this is my small part.

And just as I watched (for text messages) from James Cameron as he touched the bottom of the Mariana trench back in March, although he didn’t sent back pictures (I think we have to wait for the movie) I am excited. I have no doubt, since we paid for Curiosity, NASA will be sending us pictures as fast as that 13 minutes of free space between us will allow.  But only after Curiosity survives the seven minutes of terror.  I will be cheering for a victory.