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Hutchison: NASA's "Curiosity" pays

Curiosity Pays
by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Early on August 6th, 2012, NASA’s rover Curiosity executed a perfect landing after an eight-month journey took it an astonishing 325 million miles to Mars, a planet roughly 130 million miles from Earth.  It was a huge leap forward for America’s space program and for human exploration of our solar system.  It reminded us that our innate curiosity leads to great feats of discovery, scientific advancement and improvement of the human condition.  And it was a breathtaking moment of national pride and wonder.

The team of NASA scientists and engineers who guided Curiosity on her long voyage endured “seven minutes of terror” as the spacecraft guided itself through a multi-step descent through Mars’s atmosphere, from a starting point of 13,000 miles per hour to a feather-light landing.  The euphoria they felt at the safe touchdown was surely unmatched.  But as the first pictures were beamed back to Earth, those of us who have fought to maintain our space program did feel our own extra measure of joy.

I have long maintained that America’s space program is an investment we cannot afford to shortchange.  Science and research fuel both our financial and intellectual economy.  Breakthroughs in healthcare, missile defense, even everyday products we use at home have come from NASA research.  Some of these innovations were planned, others were pure happenstance.  But all have made our lives better and created new products which, in turn, have created jobs and expanded the economy.  The Mars rover offers almost limitless possibility for the same.

Both the rover itself and its unique delivery system represent engineering feats of historic proportions.  Her landing bore out a new “guided flight” system for entering the Martian atmosphere, executing a perfect landing within its target area – in fact, almost perfectly at its center.  Guided flight technology will be crucial for future Mars-bound spacecraft carrying crew members and it lays the scientific foundation for leaps forward in commercial aviation safety and reliability.

As Curiosity explores Mars, she will employ dozens of new technologies that will pave the way for development of new American industries and jobs.  The signals the rover generated as she descended into the thin Martian atmosphere were referred to as “heart-beats”.  And one of the first orders of business after landing was a “brain change”, the installation of new software from 130 million miles away to help control her ground-based activities.  She – and the team does refer to Curiosity as a “she” – will use her “arm”, which has a “shoulder”, an “elbow” and a “wrist”, to probe the secrets of Gale Crater and Mount Sharp.  Curiosity’s ChemCam rock-blasting laser will allow instant chemical analysis of Martian soil and rocks. She will both navigate and share the view with us through her 3-D camera “eyes.”

These extraordinary achievements are essential steps toward expansion of human activity into the limitless reaches of space.  We know from the Apollo landings on the moon and the International Space Station that humans can live and work beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  With this breakthrough on Mars, vast new horizons have been set.

Our challenge now is to ensure we have the means to continue our journey of exploration.  But we must do it soon – not a generation from now, or even a decade from now.  We cannot lose momentum or fail to build on the tremendous advancements we’ve made.

This means making the US space program a priority. It means increasing the pace of exploration and mission development. We are in deep economic uncertainty and our spending needs to be reined in.  But in addition to cutting spending, we must be strategic about how we allocate our resources.  An active NASA ensures that America will continue to harness the technology that keeps our economy vibrant and growing.  America’s return on investment in science has been multifold throughout our history.  If we support the brilliant scientists, engineers and astronauts at NASA, there is no limit to the extraordinary discoveries they can make, nor to the benefits to America’s quality of life and national security as a result.

Hutchison, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.