Don't get too excited. Mars Curiosity has been a big success, but there might not be much money for missions in the future.
We successfully landed a one-ton nuclear-powered robot car on a planet over 300 million miles away, using a rocket skycrane. Now Mars Curiosity has, in just a few weeks, beamed panoramic pictures of its new red world back to Earth, zapped a rock with a laser, wiggled its wheels as a precursor to its first spin on the Martian surface, and then gone for a plutonium-powered drive.
Everything is going great!
Except that back home, it isn't. They were high-fiving in their powder-blue polo shirts at Jet Propulsion Lab mission control in Pasadena, when Curiosity signaled that it had not become a $2.5-billion flame out or a smoldering hole in Gale Crater. But the future of "planetary science," with a focus on Mars, is in doubt, as science takes a back seat in NASA's budget.
Will public opinion infuence NASA's budget?
Members of the project leadership team pass out high fives to engineers from mission control before a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sunday night. At $2.5 billion, the Curiosity mission equals what NASA has given to SpaceX in funding.
KPCC reporters had been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.
The spectacular success of JPL in landing the Mars Curiosity rover on Mars last night followed hot of the heels of SpaceX's stunning demonstration that a commercial spaceflight company — and a startup, no less — could do what only governments had been able to do: send a capsule to the International Space Station and bring it back home.
The JPL rocket scientists in their now iconic powder-blue polo shirts (not to mention mohawks) and SpaceX's engineers in their L.A. casual-cool mission control room threads formed a vivid contrast with the buttoned-up (and tobacco-friendly) NASA vibe of old. Something new is definitely in the air, er...airless void of space, and much of it is being designed and built in Southern California. SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, just south of L.A, and JPL calls Pasadena home.