In a panel discussion on Real Time with Bill Maher, the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson once noted that when America stopped going to the moon, they stopped dreaming. In other interviews he also acknowledged the role played in his own childhood by such scientific discoveries and achievements. Serving as inspiration for future generations is a role that is not often attributed to science. This is especially apparent during my lifetime, where there has been a conspicuous dearth of heart warming and spine tingling scientific achievements. The science of my childhood has mostly been along the lines of breakthroughs in theory, consumer technology and the rise of the Internet. Instead of the “house of the future” and “man lands on Venus” appearing in the daily news, we have instead born witness to the rise of Apple and Google. And, because of this, instead of a staring in wonder at beautiful pictures the likes of The Blue Marble, we must instead take solace in the rather less inspirational (although more useful) computers and iPads we now take for granted.
My parent’s generation grew up in the age of space exploration. My mother was nine years old when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap. And it wasn’t just Americans who were amazed, proud and inspired by that fantastic achievement and the myriad of others that followed. The Australian’s have long been trumpeting their minor role in transmitting sounds and images from that first moon voyage, the Russians also achieved much in terms of space exploration, and a lot of countries had a hand to play in the space race, as well as the International Space Station that followed. As a species, we can all feel proud. Together, we humans have left the African savannah behind, and, after a long journey, have reached into space. We all did it. No matter how small a part we played, we all have a stake.
But the younger generation, my generation, have not seen it happening. Nothing so spectacular is happening anymore. When I was young, “science” was a room of Bunsen burners and dirty beakers. It was the room in which I spent three hours a week being bored to death. It wasn’t the gateway to space. It wasn’t the gateway to adventure. It wasn’t the gateway to discovery. I never got woken up in the early hours of the morning to watch the human race take such a gigantic step forward. I never got taken out of class to hear our leaders address our pioneers. I never got to witness such discovery. It just wasn’t there. Sure, the human race has achieved spectacular advancements in my lifetime. However, they all seem less luminescent. More terrestrial.
Of course, we will probably learn a staggering amount from this latest venture to Mars. If what is true, and we can find what the scientists are looking for, it will lead to unbelievable breakthroughs in the knowledge of our own origins and (possibly) our future. We can learn how it all started, and how it might end. We can learn whether we are alone, or whether we used to be. However, this is not all that the $2 Billion USD has bought the Americans. What they have also purchased is the wonder, amazement and attention of the 10-year-old children who watched the simulation of the landing. The children who waited in anticipation for those seven minutes to find out what would happen. The children who will continue to pay attention as the information streams in over the next months and years. The children who will go into their science class, pay closer attention, and ask their teachers lots of questions about what has just happened. The children who have now woken up.
I, for one, do not believe that $2 Billion USD is too much to spend for what we might learn. I think that is a good gamble, and, if it pays off, will actually be amazingly cheap. However, regardless of the outcome, the inspiration, the wonder and the amazement that has been generated more than makes up for the cost. Projects like these are what inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers to do what they will do. Right now, there are thousands of little Neil Degrasse Tyson’s out there who have suddenly awoken to the world of science precisely because of this venture. If nothing else, the Curiosity Rover is justified purely for its inspirational value.