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Curiosity could reignite space interest

August 12, 2012
By CRAIG HOWELL , Weirton Daily Times

Last weekend, the eyes of U.S. citizens - or at least those who were able to stay awake - were glued to televisions and computers watching as the Curiosity rover made its long-awaited landing on Mars.

The $2.5 billion probe is now on a two-year mission to survey and analyze the Martian environment for signs of microbial life, either in the past or present. That's right, it's looking for the basic signs of life on another planet.

NASA and the nation have great hopes for this mission as it is among the first major projects since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program last year.

It already seems to be paying off, with a series of video, low-resolution, high-resolution and even three-dimensional photos beamed back to Earth showing some of the terrain near Gale crater where it landed.

It could very well lay the ground work for the future of our nation's space program, and I believe it could also help to inspire the next generation of explorers and scientists.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a time when there was still a great deal of excitement surrounding space exploration among the everyday citizen.

It was a time when schools often would stop their lessons to watch a shuttle launch or landing, and it seemed as if just about every kid wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up.

While I had my share of traditional toys for a kid in the 80s, with everything from Lego to G.I. Joe, one of my favorites was a little rocket my parents picked up while in Huntsville for a cousin's wedding.

The rocket's sections could be taken off and it even had a launchable lunar module at the top, complete with a little "space rock" to tuck inside.

I would play with it for hours, sometimes pretending I was commanding a mission, and sometimes just shooting the module at my little brother.

During a trip to Florida, I was fortunate to see a shuttle launch.

I even took astronomy in both high school and college.

Unfortunately, it seems as if that national pride began to wane at some point.

The excitement of manned missions into space subsided, and before too long it seemed like most people no longer cared to even read a short blurb on the latest mission to the International Space Station.

But I truly believe all that is changing.

We are in the midst of a rebirth of sorts, with NASA working on designs for a new manned vehicle, and even private companies getting into the mix and offering the possibility of limited space tourism for those who can pay their prices.

In the last few years, new challenges have been given, including a possible return trip to the Moon. That will, of course, need funding to be possible, but it's something to shoot for and something for the next generation to look forward to.

In the meantime, there are still opportunities to explore. There are still manned missions being done in cooperation with other nation's and new discoveries made through Hubble and other sources.

Fly-by missions to some of our outer planets in the system are becoming more common as we learn more about the gas giants, asteroids and other celestial bodies neighboring our little blue dot.

I think Curiosity and the discoveries it makes will help to inspire today's kids to look to the stars and let their imaginations soar.

They may read about this mission and resolve themselves to be astronauts, or engineers, or astronomers or physicists.

It could be one of those kids who make the next big discovery which leads to a whole new understanding of what's out there.

They may be the one to be involved in that next manned lunar mission, or maybe even send the first person to Mars.

They may invent a new technology that will help us to see farther into space than we ever have before, discovering new planets and galaxies and expanding the limits of the known universe.

They may even decide to make Pluto a planet again.

Our nation's space program will look different for a while. It could be quite some time before we put together any more manned missions to be launched from U.S. soil.

For now, at least, it will be more satellites, probes and planetary rovers, but at least it's there in some form, exploring space and expanding our knowledge of the cosmos.

We're still flying.

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)

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