The rover last week beamed home photographs of its first wheel tracks on the Martian soil since its daredevil landing.
With manned missions beyond the International Space Station on hold, the spotlight has turned on machines.
While it did not rise to Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” interest was so high in the rover Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror” approach to the red planet earlier this month that the website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) crashed after receiving nearly 2 billion hits.
“There’s something exciting about reaching another place in the solar system. If you think about the kind of interest the landing of Curiosity had, you get a sense of that,” said Roger Launius, Smithsonian Institution space curator.
It wasn’t on the same level as Armstrong’s feat, “but it was pretty darn exciting,” Launius said.
Man inspires, robot can’t
John Grotzinger, Curiosity chief scientist, said the wheel prints on Mars may turn out to be an iconic image just like those first boot prints on the lunar surface.
“Instead of a human, it’s a robot pretty much doing the same thing,” Grotzinger said.
Henry Lambright, a space scholar, said while Curiosity was inspiring, the world still needed to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
“It can’t inspire to the degree that Apollo did because a robot can’t inspire the way a man can,” Lambright said.
Next giant leap
On Monday, Nasa played a recording from administrator Charles Bolden that had been sent up to the rover on Mars and relayed back to Earth. In it, he thanked scientists and engineers for their achievement.
David Lavery of Nasa headquarters said the hope was that someone would be inspired by Bolden’s message and become the first human to stand on Mars.
“Like the great Neil Armstrong, they’ll be able to speak aloud—the first person at that point, of the next giant leap in human exploration,” Lavery said.
When Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon on July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million people watched and listened. “Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us,” Aldrin recalled after Armstrong’s death on Saturday.
Early in the Space Age, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were the public face of Nasa’s space endeavor while the unmanned lunar missions were in the shadows. The public craved adventure and the manned missions delivered.
Next, the space shuttle ferried a new crop of astronauts to low-Earth orbit, but after three decades, it became routine. And the Cold War thawed with the Russians and Americans cooperating on the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station.
The space station is all that’s left. Its crew of six quietly goes about doing its job about 400 kilometers above the Earth. US President Barack Obama nixed plans for returning astronauts to the moon in favor of landing on an asteroid and eventually Mars.
These days, space exploration is carried out by robotic spacecraft—commanded by human handlers on Earth. Advances in technology have allowed unmanned spacecraft to go farther and peer deeper, circling Mercury, Saturn, and the asteroid Vesta, with others headed for Jupiter and dwarf planet Pluto.
At center stage
The twin Voyager craft are still going strong at the fringes of the solar system 35 years after their launch in 1977.
“Robotic exploration has taken more of a center stage,” said Howard McCurdy, American University space policy analyst. “It gets more publicity now than the International Space Station.”
When the first Mars rover Sojourner landed in 1997, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke rephrased Armstrong’s famous line and said the event was “one small step for the rover.”
Three other rovers have followed, including Curiosity, which landed on Aug. 5 by executing an intricate routine that ended with it being lowered by cables to the surface.
Curiosity’s acrobatics proved so popular that its Twitter followers surged from 120,000 on the eve of landing to more than a million.