You know how I love stuff about space and the internet has been ablaze with information about the Mars Curiosity Rover, a component of the Mars Science Laboratory, for the past few weeks. The comparatively large amount of publicity it has received indicates that NASA, in its sixth decade, might be figuring out Public Relations: target young people (but not children) who might be interested in, like, books and science and stuff while basically ignoring the "Hurr! Everything that costs money is bad!" crowd that cannot be pleased under any circumstances. The wildly popular landing video is brilliant marketing but merely a function of the technology being available today; had a video of a space probe landing been possible thirty years ago, it would have looked like that. In other words, the mission itself wasn't really groundbreaking. Logically, it outdid previous similar missions in technology – better cameras, more and more complex experiments, more data returned more quickly, and so on. On the surface (see what I did there?) it's not exactly the kind of mission you'd expect to grab the public's attention. It's just another thing the internet has made far more accessible.
Oh, and there was a guy with a mohawk, a probable candidate to be the first Hipster D-Bag in space. Not a dry panty in the house when he's at mission control, amirite?
As much as planetary exploration interests and excites me, I have to be the cranky old bastard for just a second and point out that NASA landed rovers on Mars that returned images and experimental data – Viking 1 and 2 – in 1976. And one of them continued to work on the surface and collect data for six years. It's not a pissing contest, as every mission allows new research and new insights based on the limits of technology available at the time, yet I can't help feeling that sending an orbiter to Mars and landing a rover is old hat to the folks at NASA by now. To think that they managed the same using the computer, communications, and telemetry technology of the late 1960s is a lot more impressive, for whatever that's worth.
It's great that people are interested in the space program and I'm sure the entire MSL program was challenging and time consuming for everyone involved. It must have felt great to see it succeed. But now that NASA is cool (at least momentarily) I imagine there are a bunch of old guys who were there in the Seventies looking at Mohawk Guy and thinking "Yeah, we put a probe on Mars when you were in diapers, kid. It was made of transistors, a Pong circuit board, and two cameras we bought at a pawn shop in El Segundo after we did mushrooms at Buzz Aldrin's condo."
And don't even get me started on Voyager 2, sonny. We stole half those parts from Radio Shack and that can of bolts is still working 35 years (!) and nine billion miles (!!!) later. And we didn't have the youtubes and the crazy haircuts and the memes and all that baloney. Now get off my lawn and get a nice military haircut.