Mars landing: Curiosity rover's journey a trailblazer

Gavin Mendeck, member of MSL entry, descent and

Gavin Mendeck, member of MSL entry, descent and landing team, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Devin Kipp, member of MSL entry, descent and landing team, JPL and Steve Sell, member of MSL entry, descent and landing team, JPL, describe the timing of the MSL parachute deployment during Curiosity Mars landing, at a news briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 10, 2012. (Credit: AP)

Rumors of NASA's death have been exaggerated.

After the Obama administration proceeded with the scuttling of the ancient space-shuttle fleet, a host of doom-and-gloomers, including some of the most storied names in U.S. astronaut history, raised sand. They suggested that without manned flight, there really was no U.S. space program.

But that was B.C. - before Curiosity, the probe sent to Mars, which for more than a week now has been beaming photographs of the Red Planet's landscape back to Earth. The rocky, mountainous terrain has been compared to the Mojave Desert, which has given a very different breed of NASA scoffers - those who believe man never really set foot on the moon - more ammo for their skepticism.

They can say what they want. Curiosity is for real, and so are its photographs. The first color images showed the north wall and rim of Gale Crater, named for the Australian banker and astronomer Walter Frederick Gale, who in the late 19th century viewed Mars using telescopes he built.

Curiosity's success, however, shouldn't be seen as some sort of victory for robots over man. The probe's eight-month trek to Mars was a step toward eventually sending a human on that same journey.

Manned spaceflight has not been abandoned, although responsibility for the development of the vehicles that will eventually take a human to Mars has been largely turned over to private enterprise.

It will be decades before such a flight occurs; the year 2030 has been staked out as the goal. In the meantime, Americans should pay close attention to the work being done by companies such as SpaceX, which in May successfully sent an unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station, where it delivered a cargo of 1,500 pounds of scientific equipment and food.

NASA has contracted with SpaceX for an additional 12 flights to the ISS, with plans to eventually include astronauts among its delivery items.

Two other companies, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp., have also been contracted by NASA to design and develop spacecraft that can replace the retired shuttles. SpaceX is adapting its Dragon cargo capsule for manned missions, while Sierra Nevada is developing a Dream Chaser plane similar to the shuttles, and Boeing is working on its CST-100 spacecraft.

It will take years to even get close to recovering the thousands of space-industry jobs that were lost with the shutdown of the shuttle program. But it's wrong to depict the United States as having ceded space exploration to the Russians, who in the interim are being paid to taxi U.S. astronauts to the space station, or to the Chinese, who have a mission to the moon in their sights.

The United States has simply decided to take a different, more cost-effective route to its goal. That route involves an increased emphasis on private industry, which has always played a huge role in developing America's space technology.

This country will get back into the business of launching men and women into space. As Artemis Westenberg, president of Explore Mars, put it, "Rovers and robots can only do so much." Meanwhile, enjoy Curiosity's snapshots.

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