Selfies taken by robots on alien worlds are the finest. As a NASA Curiosity Rover, Bobak and Curiosity’s $2.5 billion rover Curiosity were the catalysts for my career shift a decade ago.
The high-resolution photographs that NASA’s cutting-edge rolling robot took on Mars. And then sent back from its new home are mostly responsible for my emotional response. For the first time in human history, smartphones made the globe a photographic wonderland, capturing images of everything and everyone. Even after all these years, I still struggle to explain why the crisp photographs of a perfectly empty planet were so meaningful.
On the evening of a Sunday, August 5, 2012, the eve of my 33rd birthday. I braced myself and the rest of mankind as I watched NASA pull off a never-before-tried maneuver. Using a mechanism named sky crane, NASA lowered their most advanced mobile Martian laboratory to the surface of the red planet. This maneuver had never been attempted before. At this point, Curiosity was lowered to the ground by a unique descending mechanism. That hovered just over the ground, disconnected, and flew away to crash-land safely.
The high-stakes landing was described as “seven minutes of fear” by NASA. There was a lot of time and money invested in this project if it didn’t pan out as planned.
“NASA Mohawk Guy,” Ferdowsi, became the picture most associated with the Curiosity landing in a strange way.
Before Curiosity’s arrival, I was awestruck by the photographs returning from Mars. Photographs sent back by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of the Curiosity rover Curiosity as it descended through the thin Martian atmosphere with the backdrop of another planet’s clear, desolate terrain below.
Just to refresh your memory, this happened in 2012. Apple’s iPhone has been on the market for the past five years. My days as a technology journalist were occupied by the competition for supremacy. In the smartphone market between Apple and Android. The meteoric ascent of Instagram, and a now-shocking level of excitement over something called Google Glass.
Mobile and social revolutions were devouring the world, even helping to bring down oppressive regimes in the Arab Spring of the year before.
And yet, these heartwarming tales began to seem like the exception rather than the rule to me. With omnipresent gadgets that feature not one but two cameras, social media platforms have fostered an oversharing and self-obsessed society. I remember thinking when I was in my early 30s that I didn’t anticipate becoming such a grumpy old man.
My creeping misanthropy was put to rest by the sights of Curiosity’s journey. Toward a wholly foreign and empty environment and images of Ferdowsi and colleagues celebrating a decade-long triumph.
I found the notion of employing new technology to expand our view of the universe or discover. Previously uncharted realms far more exciting than the latest iPhone upgrade.
Curiosity’s photos over the next months and years revealed a strange and strangely familiar world. Aside from the fact that it looks like the southwestern United States for most of my adult life. Mars is a desolate, arid, and dusty environment. A photo book of my hikes in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico could easily accommodate the color vistas given back by the rover.
While NASA’s Curiosity rover investigated these previously uncharted but uncannily familiar locations. The Kepler Space Telescope made discoveries of planets outside our solar system that furthered my knowledge of the cosmos.
For millennia, humans could only name a handful of known planets. Astronomers didn’t discover the first exoplanet until the 1990s. Kepler contributed thousands of new worlds to our ever-expanding database. But there are undoubtedly billions more out there waiting to be found — perhaps even billions upon billions.
Choosing a sunset selfie filter is difficult if you’ve contemplated what sunsets from other suns would look like.
I began writing less about technology and more about science. Particularly planetary science and astronomy, without ever announcing a shift in my focus. Whatever Elon Musk, his SpaceX, and the other wealthy space brothers were up to. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk had comparable “aha” moments that switched their focus from technology to space. You and I are both interested in seeing where this leads them and us.
The Curiosity rover was succeeded by the Perseverance rover, which carried a miniature helicopter named Ingenuity. This happened eight years after Curiosity had survived the terrifying ordeal that lasted seven minutes. The landing in February of 2021 and the subsequent flights of Ingenuity were a pleasant diversion. From the grueling pandemic that had been going on for the previous year.
COVID-19, if I’m being completely honest, has made me question whether or not I spend too much time thinking about space. In some ways, I’ve been careless in ignoring so many pressing Earth. Issues to devote my life to speculating about the cosmos.
Curiosity the robot and Bobak the engineer with his punk hairstyle captured my attention and captured. The attention of the world 10 years ago, but I’m still undecided. To me, it’s hard to comprehend how much time and effort went into that seven minutes of fear. They found a way to place a wheeled science laboratory on a planet we’ve never been to and never will. The ability to solve problems like that is positively mind-blowing.
Curiosity sparked my interest in the cosmos, but it also sparked the interest of others. More skilled members of our species. I believe that tackling problems that are so out of this world that they seem unsolvable at home will actually make those more pressing problems less daunting.