Curiosity not generating enough interest
It's hard to muster enthusiasm for a space programme that's so far behind schedule
Blogs | 08 Aug 2012 :
I didn't watch the successful landing of Curiosity Rover on Mars earlier this week (6 August to be exact) which says something about my curiosity (or lack of it). This contrasts with my immense interest back in 1976 when the Viking probes landed on the red planet.
I was in a small town in Zambia at the time but I remember reading articles in Time and Newsweek about the probes and looking at the pictures from Mars hardly believing these were actual images from a planet which had proved a source of such enduring fascination and speculation for humankind down through the ages. The excitement of humankind arriving by proxy on the planet which had been so often speculated as harbouring alien life was palpable. Mars wasn't the first planet to be visited by a probe from Earth (Venus in 1970) but it was the most exciting.
Yet here we are in the 21st century and I can't shrug off a feeling of disappointment. Why? Because I can't escape the sense that we should be further along the track by now. Seven years after man first stepped on the moon, a machine sent from earth landed on the surface of Mars and started sending back pictures and taking soil samples. It's now 36 years later and somehow we're supposed to be excited about another, better, machine landing on the same planet. How can we be when back in 1976, it seemed distinctly possible that people would be walking on Mars by now?
The same goes for the moon, of course. Back in the mid-1970s there was a pretty poor UK TV series called Space 1999 which featured a moonbase with over 300 people. While the series was pretty silly - based on the idea the moon was knocked out of its orbit by a catastrophic accident and sent hurtling into space - it didn't seem too far-fetched to believe that there might be a base of some sort on the moon by the end of the century. Don't forget, this was at a time when it was possible to look up to the stars in the night sky and see Skylab orbiting the earth and feel amazed and uplifted to know there were actual people in that dot.
Perhaps the most amazing thing was that a lot of this was taking place at a time when the western economies, in particular, were looked upon as worn out, exhausted and in economic decline.
What does this have to do with technology? Well, technology, at its core, has the same DNA as the innovation, problem-solving and creativity that helped make space exploration possible in the 60s and 70s. But that DNA has taken a different route to the point where technology today is very often about the smaller and personal or focused on specifications such as speed and size or thinner and lighter instead of actual performance. Oh, I know everyone in IT talks about performance but what they tend to be speaking about is something that sounds impressive rather than practical.
For example, if someone from an IT vendor had designed the specifications for the Curiosity Rover, what do you think they would have done? Would they have based it on a computer with a 200MHz Power PC CPU, 2Gb of Flash memory, 256Mb of DRAM and 256Kb of electrically erasable programmable read-only memory? Of course not. But that's all there is in the Curiosity Rover. And it works very well as all those who 'witnessed' the landing can testify. The latest news, according to The Register, is that the onboard OS is currently being upgraded across more than 220m kilometres of space.
There's a popular picture doing the rounds on Facebook which says something like: 'Curiosity Rover -14 minute delay for an event 155m miles away, NBC - 6 hour delay for an event 3,500 miles away'. No one's saying NBC doesn't have the technology to broadcast that event (the Olympics if you wondering) instantaneously, but it chooses not to. That, to me, sums why we don't have a moonbase or people walking on Mars today. We probably have the technology to do it, but somewhere along the way, we got distracted into using it for something else instead.