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Curiosity, Here and Abroad

What does our fascination with space exploration tell us about ourselves?


After its 352 million-mile journey and the harrowing “seven minutes of terror,” NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, landed safely on the red planet. By all accounts, it was a flawless descent and the one-ton science-lab-vehicle has made its home in the center of Gale Crater, with a spectacular view of Mt. Sharp. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)–the space probe mission that includes Curiosity–is a $2.5 billion project and represents the culmination of many years of research. To be sure, Curiosity is a scientific and engineering marvel. That it seems to have made a near-perfect voyage into a vanishingly specific location seems almost miraculous. Now that it has landed, one of Curiosity’s missions is to determine the habitability of Mars–perhaps in preparation for a human mission in the future. Another assignment is to investigate whether conditions on Mars have been favorable for life–microbial life–and for locating clues about possible past life.

While we are bound to learn much from Curiosity (the images are already starting to roll in), it can be revealing to reflect on what we find alluring about space missions in general and our excitement about this one in particular. Surely, there is not only a psychology of space exploration but also a psychology of space fascination. To begin, one only needs to gaze upon the first images Curiosity has teleported back and consider what such images imply. Here are pictures of a world we have never seen. Not a single person on planet Earth has witnessed the three-mile-high Mt. Sharp, for example. Such a fact challenges whatever fantasies we may harbor of power, omniscience, and invincibility. This is terrain untraveled.

Mt. Sharp

Space exploration reminds us of our anthropocentric vulnerabilities. Indeed, we are reminded of our tendency to forget our place in the universe–that it is much more vast than we imagine. We think of Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the status quo in advancing the scandalous idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Where the solar system is concerned, we are simply quite insignificant and mediocre. We might best be viewed as side effects, and are as unplanned and accidental as any other living organism. Oddly enough, none of this implies nihilism or despair. On the contrary, such a recognition pushes us to wonder at our own existence, appreciate our good fortune, and marvel at how any of this could have happened in the first place.

Where our interpersonal system is concerned, we may be kinder and more cooperative when we recognize our mutual dependence, our need for affiliation, and our undeserving status in the cosmos. We are not owed anything, but we are all in it together. Such a perspective–far from being disheartening–carries ethical implications. We are part of a larger, interdependent system with a myriad array of microbial life. How do we treat each other? How do we treat our world?

What about our almost folksy myth about martians living on the red planet? We have had mythological stories about Mars since ancient Greece and, during the past century, martians have inhabited the story lines of countless works of science fiction. Martians have stood in for any number of social and cultural fears and have served us well as projections of what we dread. They have been our self-cures in managing the Other.

And while there may be a part of us hoping that scientists find intelligent (though terrifying) space aliens, the actual scientists are looking for biosignatures of life. This is not the kind of complex, intelligent, DNA-based organism we might imagine; instead, they are looking for a less spectacular, less dramatic, single-celled life of a kind we have never imagined.

All of this brings us back to Curiosity. While we are clearly not in the center of the universe, the fantastic success of Curiosity reveals our unique, far-reaching capabilities as humans. We can turn fantasies into realities. We are the mammals who can convert dreams into jobs. We have landed a car-sized rover on a planet over 350 million miles away. It’s taking pictures for us and sending them back, in high definition. As NASA engineer and a principal designer of Curiosity, Adam Stelzner, put it on a tweet this morning, “Good morning new world. We now have a new place to explore.”

More from Bruce Poulsen Ph.D.
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