Spatial perspective

The warning light on my car’s dashboard blinks to the beat of the FM station as I drive, yet I have no idea what it means. I only know that it’s yellow, not red, and so I keep driving in the blind faith that I won’t end up in a ditch. Like microwave cooking or rural electricity, I just take it for granted.

Sometimes I wonder what people from earlier centuries would have thought if they could slide in beside me and watch me switch between my Bluetooth, my iPod, and my electric coffee warming tray. It would probably be like my first reaction to manned space flight.

My earliest memory is of the shag carpet in our house in Fort Wayne, Ind., watching Apollo 17 land on the moon in 1972. I was 4 at the time, yet even I could pick up on the tension as my brothers and sisters watched the television coverage. Back then, the idea of human footprints on the moon was enough to bring the entire globe to a standstill. Nowadays, it takes a Spice Girls reunion to pull that off.

I was in seventh grade when John Young, who just happened to walk on the moon in 1972, commanded the first flight of the shuttle Columbia in 1981. We were pulled into the school library and watched the takeoff, marveling at the billowing caterpillar of smoke left behind by the rocket boosters.

In 1986, I saw the explosion of the shuttle Challenger — although the flights were routine by now, it happened to be on the media center television while I struggled to finish an essay for English. Suddenly, we were reminded how dangerous it was to reach beyond our atmosphere.

When shuttle flights resumed two years later, however, most of us again took them for granted. By 1998, even the placement of the first module in the Space Station wasn’t required viewing. The “been there, done that” mentality had made even the most auspicious of space missions seem like a drive to the supermarket. Hurtling ourselves off our home planet and into the stars failed to grip the public in the same way, and nothing seemed to truly capture the public imagination even though the degree of difficulty had greatly increased. Not the Hubble Telescope (which merely managed to accurately determine the rate of expansion of the universe); not the stunning pictures from the satellite Galileo of Jupiter and its moons; not even the rover Pathfinder and its more successful sisters (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity) trekking across Mars and taking pictures like a retired tourist could hold our attention for long.

By the time the latest spacecraft was ready to enter Mars’s atmosphere, it was easy to question why NASA had named its latest rover “Curiosity,” as so few of us seemed truly curious about space travel anymore. It was just another piece of metal we’d sent to study rocks in the Martian desert.

However, here’s what we humans managed to pull off while the badminton quarterfinals were underway at the London Olympics last week: We shot a souped-up space car 352 million miles into the cosmos and landed it a mere 1.5 miles from the target zone in the Gale Crater. The landing sequence alone required six vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices and the largest supersonic parachute ever built. Guided entry culminated in the separation of the capsule and heat shield, resulting in a 13,000 MPH freefall slowed by a parachute deployed at Mach 2 before the rover and descent capsule dropped from it. Rocket thrusters slowed the descent as the rover transformed from its stowed flight configuration to a landing position while being lowered beneath the descent craft by a “sky crane” system. The sky crane lowered the rover with a 25-foot tether to a soft landing — wheels down at 2 mph — on the surface of Mars. After the rover touched down, it fired several pyros (small explosive devices) activating cable cutters on the bridle and umbilical cords to free itself from the descent craft, which quickly sped away to a safe distance for a final (fateful) crash.

This stuff would be considered far too convoluted for science fiction. It was a Martian landing designed by Rube Goldberg, yet few people watched the live feed of this spectacular achievement. Even synchronized swimming had a higher Nielsen rating.

People observing the victory laps taken by NASA scientists in the hours after the landing on the next day’s newscast probably wondered what all the fuss was about … because that’s how jaded we’ve become.

I’m older now, and I like to think I have better carpet, but I’m no better at appreciating the amazing advances in technology that surround me every day. More importantly, I’m waiting for all these technological leaps to make their way to Honda, who still can’t figure out why that warning light is blinking on my dashboard.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him a [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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