Mars mission just as inspiring as any Olympic feats

As the medals continue to rain down on Team GB there is genuine hope that success at the Olympics will motivate a generation. After all, even Andy Murray has won something!

Perhaps the superhuman feats of Ennis, Farah and the like will prompt youngsters to take up new sports, keep fit and learn the value of real hard work and dedication to a cause.

But while the nation’s attention focuses on the London games, there is something else happening which I believe should prove equally inspirational.

Yesterday, as many of us were waking up, a NASA spacecraft completed its voyage across the great, vast blackness of space to land on Mars.

The aptly-named Curiosity rover, which is the size of a small car, touched down in the Gale Crater after a truly mind-boggling journey which ended with a complex, nail-biting descent on to the planet involving parachutes, a crane and some serious ingenuity.

The goal of the Mars Space Laboratory, which has 10 times more kit than any previous mission, is to try to determine whether or not the red planet has ever had the conditions to support life.

This is surely science at its most riveting.

Forget the test tubes, Bunsen burners and chemical symbols which bored us all to death in school laboratories.

If only my teachers at Holden Lane High had been able to teach science through space exploration then maybe, just maybe, yours truly wouldn’t have flunked his physics GCSE.

If you ask me, if we want to engage children in young people in chemistry, physics and biology, I think all we have to do is stick the telly on or use an internet search engine to show them what mankind is achieving with its brains as well as its muscles.

President Obama Tweeted about it but sadly, the BBC didn’t think this event worthy of a live broadcast as they were presumably too busy scouring the Oxford English Dictionary for new ways to eulogise about handball.

So it is up to us to relay to our children the excitement, relief and joy which exploded in NASA’s mission control room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the wake of this astonishing technological accomplishment.

It is up to us to explain to them how scientists had to plot a trajectory so carefully that a deep space probe could hit a box just 1.8 miles by 7.4 miles at the top of Mars’s atmosphere in order for it to arrive at its destination 352 million miles away. (It has been compared to hitting a golf ball from Los Angeles to Scotland and scoring a hole-in-one).

We can tell children that the spacecraft travelled at 13,000km per hour and its final descent was at an estimated 21,000km/h.

It is up to us to explain that Curiosity is equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, scoop stuff up and sieve samples. We can say its got a laser too.

We can tell youngsters that the project, which cost $2.5 billion (about a seventh of the conservative estimate cost of London 2012) will see Curiosity carrying out experiments for 24 months – although its plutonium generators will provide power for at least 14 years.

We can explain that the landing of the Mars Space Laboratory was handled entirely by pre-programmed computer and all NASA’s team of boffins – which includes two British scientists – could do was wait, hope and pray.

Of course, advances in technology are such that youngsters now hold in their hands computers more intricate and powerful than those available to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July, 1969.

Surfing the worldwide web is second nature to today’s schoolchildren and sci-fi films continue to push the boundaries of our understanding and imagination.

Thus we have become blasé about space travel which is a real shame because the Mars missions are, to me, the equivalent of the first manned Moon Landing which happened a couple of years before I was born.
For me, the very fact that anyone can build a craft capable of travelling unmanned over such distances and then relaying information and images back to Earth is astonishing.

In this age of austerity, the fact that American scientists are pushing ahead with an, albeit trimmed back, space programme echoes the pioneering spirit of their forefathers.

Curiosity’s mission will hopefully lay the foundations for further visits to the red planet and, ultimately, a manned mission to Mars within the next 20 to 30 years.

I defy anyone not to be excited by the cutting edge of space exploration which could help to answer some key questions about the evolution of our own planet.

At the same time it may also inspire scientists of the future to go where no man (or woman) has gone before.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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