Last week's successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity, represented a triumph in aeronautical and electrical engineering. Now the nine-foot, six-wheeled rover will use its instruments to make "Mars-shaking" discoveries in geology, meteorology and chemistry.
Now think back to earlier Mars missions, where earlier rovers were basically dropped onto the Red Planet smothered in giant balloons to serve as shock absorbers. Curiosity achieved an elegant landing, guided carefully by jets that tapped into dynamic databases that instantly made adjustments to the landing path.
Anyone who's seen the Apollo 11 command module at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., or the Grumman Lunar Module at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Uniondale, N.Y., can only be struck by how old-fashioned and primitive they look. Virtually all controls are analog with old-fashioned round dials and green screens. Instrument panels scream "1970!" at you.
Still, they were sufficient to get the job done.
Now, 40 years later, advances in semiconductors, computing, materials science, software, communications networks, micromechanics, motor technology, data analysis and instrumentation have wrought revolutionary change.
That's why Curiosity is so exciting. Human beings may not be moving around on the Mars surface, but the product of the human mind is just getting started there.
Naturally, some of the biggest traditional aerospace contractors are taking bows because their taxpayer-financed products are part of Curiosity. They include Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT), United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) and General Dynamics Corp. (NYSE: GD).
But technology specialists like Emcore Corp. (Nasdaq: EMKR) devised the solar panels and Aeroflex Holding Corp. (NYSE: ARX) designed the actuators, the tiny motors that convert energy into motion to power the wheels. Private companies such as Honeybee Robotics of New York City devised the sample-manipulation systems and tools to remove dust.
Naturally, there's "Intel Inside" because the embedded software that responds to commands and links all the parts of Curiosity is from Wind River Systems, a specialist in embedded software acquired by Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), the No. 1 chipmaker, in 2009. Millions of chips are in all the rover's systems.
Over the next two years, Earthlings will learn how the special cameras, robotic arms and scanners and analytical tools work in very cold atmospheres. The surface temperatures range from a low of minus 161 F° to a high of 1°F. Over time, we'll learn a lot more about Mars and its origin, what's there and what's not.
Without the impetus of President John F. Kennedy's call to put an American on the moon by 1970, which he made 50 years ago next month, Curiosity and its predecessors might likely have never been possible.
Indeed, the computer revolution and the invention of the integrated circuit had begun before the call, but it was the Kennedy space program that fostered the revolution in microelectronics, miniaturization, high-speed analytics and robotics that made the 1969 moon landing possible.
As well, the need to communicate among government agencies, contractors and university engineering departments fostered the development of the Internet, now taken for granted. Mankind also has benefited from the continued ability to deploy Moore's law, named for the Intel co-founder, that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years.
Did anyone have a smartphone in 1969?
The revolutions wrought by the moonshot continue to benefit our understanding of the universe.
No wonder Kennedy said "there is new knowledge to be gained" from space, going to the moon and "the other things [like exploring planets] not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."