News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 12, 2012

EDITORIAL: When America functions as a team, wondrous things occur

Mars rover success reminds us of what we’re capable of


The Tribune-Star

---- — The incredible NASA rover Curiosity would not be exploring Mars right now without a spirit of cooperation. Teamwork.

Any project as ambitious as this involves disagreements and hard choices in advance of the mission. Scientists and engineers debate whether certain technological breakthroughs should be attempted. Astronomers lend advice on the logistics of the flight and the climate present on the planet. Planners and administrators assess the costs of components and experiments. Eventually, leaders weigh the information, expertise and diverse opinions, and decide on a course of action.

At that point, the participants must pull together to succeed.

NASA did just that, allowing its Curiosity rover to defy the physical odds it faced. The spacecraft carrying the planetary all-terrain, robotic vehicle — loaded with 17 high-tech cameras, and 10 scientific instruments (including a laser-firing rock analyzer) — had to traverse a 352-million-mile journey from Earth to Mars. It also had to survive a breathtaking plummet through the wispy thin Martian atmosphere, and decelerate from 13,200 mph to 1.7 mph in just seven minutes to prevent crashing the $2.5-billion machinery into the dusty red planet. NASA launched Curiosity on Nov. 26, 2011. It landed at 1:32 a.m. Monday, nearly eight months later.

Safely.

And, within one minute of the NASA team’s estimates set almost a year ago.

Utterly amazing. Talk about precision.

President Obama aptly called it “an unprecedented feat of technology.” And that was just the journey. As Curiosity gradually tests and activates its computers and mechanisms, the rover will begin probing a sister planet in groundbreaking fashion. Its photography should provide panoramic, color images of Mars’ desert-like landscape, and vast mountains and craters. As a laboratory on six wheels, Curiosity also will analyze rocks and soil on the spot, and transmit its findings back to Earth, helping scientists determine whether life forms as tiny as microbes could have existed there. The nuclear-powered craft is expected to function for at least two years.

Imagine if key members of the NASA team, during the mission, fought against its success. Instead of cooperating once the pre-flight arguments had been waged and settled, what if factions of the aeronautical agency’s talent pool created obstacles to the plan? Such dysfunction and gridlock would have doomed Curiosity’s pinpoint landing and the execution of its cutting-edge experiments.

Fortunately, that’s not what happened.

The world is witnessing a sparkling example of American ingenuity, guts and, yes, teamwork in that Mars voyager. From China to Canada, and Mexico to Mozambique, earthlings are seeing that America can accomplish the formerly impossible. Curiosity also should serve as a reminder to U.S. citizens that the domestic hurdles we face can be surmounted, if our leaders will ever let the dust settle enough on pressing issues to then work toward solutions.

It is possible. If we can put a man on the moon, or a rover on Mars, America can fix its problems.