The final frontier
August 9, 2012
Last Sunday, as Olympic crowds in London honored the world’s greatest athletes, Barbara and I were at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, applauding the Curiosity’s touchdown on Mars. The euphoria was contagious. As beamed-back images of the Martian landscape flashed across the monitors above us, hundreds of JPL guests cheered and celebrated. NASA scientists high-fived each other. Engineers hugged.
The elation took me back 36 years to the last time I’d visited JPL, for another Mars mission. It was 1976 and an op-ed I had written about my lifelong admiration for space science had earned me an invitation to come witness the landing of the Viking 2. Compared to the hefty Curiosity probe, the Viking was a frail and rudimentary contraption; its arrival was hailed with a stream of numbers, not high-definition snapshots. But the joy and the sense of common purpose were as inspiring then as they are now.
The contribution space science has made to this region is easy to take for granted. So is the importance of places like JPL in our local economy. When someone mentions Southern California, most people don’t think immediately of rocket scientists and research institutions, and the aerospace industry is no longer the juggernaut here that it was in the Cold War era.
Still, both financially and culturally, science remains a powerful force here. From ear thermometers and earthquake mapping to historic missions like those of the space shuttle Endeavour, the technology and products of space exploration touch lives every day around the world and throughout our region. More than 5,000 Southern Californians work full-time at JPL and nearly 4,000 more are employed at the nearby campus of Caltech, which operates JPL for NASA; together, they are among the largest employers in the San Gabriel Valley, bringing in billions of dollars to the region in grants and business.
Critics may question the value of spending $2.5 billion in these challenging times on interplanetary exploration; it’s an important question. But so are the questions tackled by endeavors like the Curiosity. Is there life on other planets? Does the rest of the solar system hold clues to our fate? If Mars once had oceans, what happened to them, and what might that mean for you and me?
Back in 1976, as a young public servant operating in the unpredictable landscape of policy and persuasion, I envied the seeming straightforwardness of scientific research. Thirty-six years later, I still wish sometimes for just one human question that could be solved with an equation once and for all.
But at JPL on Sunday, it was hard not to be moved by a different aspect of science—its power to inspire us. Thousands of humans, from all over our world, had left their egos at that door in the name of a single, shared mission. Some had dedicated more than a decade of their lives to this one project.
I wondered what might happen if that kind of selflessness and teamwork were ever applied to the challenges we face here—ending homelessness, curing poverty, halting the climate change that one JPL scientist told me may have transformed Mars’s landscape. As Barbara and I walked to our car that night, I couldn’t help thinking about the all the common ground here on Earth that we still have left to explore and conquer.
Space may be an infinite mystery, but we, ourselves, are the final frontier.