Mars Rover Lands Safely: How Will It Affect Your Children's Future?

Family Travel on 08.06.12
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Image: NASA

Curiosity, NASA's newest rover on Mars, landed safely on Sunday and sent back its first views of its own foot on Mars (reminds me of photos my daughter takes of her feet on famous landmarks, quite arty). The landing marks one of NASA's best "marketing" efforts (at NASA it is not really marketing but communicating with the taxpayers about their program), including the viral video Curiousity's Seven Minutes of Terror (worth seeing in case you missed it earier) and a constant stream of social media dialog.

A Giant Step for Design Creativity

First and foremost, NASA's successful landing demonstrates the power of new methods of engineering, design, developing, and testing of products. Before the computer systems which enabled virtual testing of a giant sky crane in the thin Martian atmosphere, no engineer would have dared to propose such a crazy idea.

And crazy ideas will grow out of this success. The space program has spun off more than just Tang, Teflon, and Velcro. Modern mobile phones would be impossible without a space program. Materials science, robotics, waste treatment, drug development, computing: it is hard to name a field not improved by humanity's attempts to meet the challenges of space travel. Memory foam, cordless tools, mobile heart defibrillators, the list goes on and on. One of my favorites: scratch resistant lenses. 

Do you talk to your kids about what crazy ideas they have for things that could make the world better? Help them pursue their ideas. Creativity and entrepreneurial spirit need practice. When they begin their careers, they will have the tools to make even outlandish ideas reality. After all, "outland" seems not so far away any more!

Humans Will Do Less

For the last critical 14 minutes of Curiousity's journey, humankind were mere spectators. A half a million lines of computer code did all the work. Get used to it.

Already, right here on Earth, cars without drivers are passing their first tests. Your teens (hopefully) hear the message not to text while driving. Their teens can expect their commute to be their most productive time for catching up on messages, as their vehicle transports them safely to their destination.

Other examples: High-tech refrigerators can email the local grocer to place restocking orders, and factory jobs involve buttons as often as they involve tools.

To be prepared, today's teens need to be politically active in questions of energy policy -- how can we power the modern conveniences without making our species extinct -- and today's kids need to brush up their math and computer skills for the jobs of the future. Since kids take their cues from their parents, that means you should involve your kids in the adult discussion, in growing doses as they mature, and promote their natural curiousity about their world which segues into curiousity about math, chemistry, physics, and biology.

NASA and the USA Will Do More

If Curiousity had crashed on landing, NASA would have somehow gotten back on its feet and tried again. After all, such missions cannot truly be called "failures" given the difficulty of success: Only 15 out of 39 global Mars missions have succeeded; NASA's success rate is almost twice the average, with 13 successes in 18 missions (72.2% vs global average of 38.5% for you number hounds).

But NASA had very little to fall back on. The rover Opportunity, active since 2004, continues to support Martian science today. It was instrumental in Curiousity's success as well, sending back signals to test the reception in advance of the yesterday's rover landing, then going silent for a few days while all resources focus on the new mission.

Funding for projects in cooperation with other countries' programs, such as the European Space Agency, has been cut. So NASA really needs Curiousity to keep things moving. And things moving at NASA means technological leadership for the USA, something no country should underestimate.

What if There Is Life on Mars?

Curiousity is the first astrobiological mission since the Viking probes of the 1970s. It will most likely not find little space creatures still living today. But what if Curiousity sends back indisputable proof that Mars once supported life. What if the means to support a manned mission to Mars (e.g. water sources) are found?

Although most scientists suspect that Earth is not a solitary example of life in the Universe, learning more about life in space would help to sort out where we came from -- and where we should go next.

Proving that Mars could support life and having high success-rate technology capable of delivering supplies would be the first steps to creating a colony on Mars. Some scientists have speculated that we should risk the trip sooner rather than later, even if it appears to be a one-way ticket to Mars.

Whether your child's dream of becoming an astronaut comes true or gets left behind with the fairy-dust of childhood, Curiousity will certainly change the world of their future.

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