Curiosity lands on Mars: the US wins the space heptathlon

"There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now.” That was the reaction of John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to Curiosity’s landing on the Red Planet. “In your face, China!” he might have added under his breath, glancing at the Olympic medal table.

Let’s not understate the significance of Curiosity’s extraordinary and daring seven-point landing routine. The US has won the space heptathlon (separation from cruise module, heat shield deployment, parachute opening, altitude sensing, rocket-powered sky crane, rover touchdown and skycrane flyaway, since you ask). Even better, China got a DNF. Last year, thanks to the failure of the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission, the most recent Chinese effort to reach Mars managed little more than a dismal few turns in low-earth orbit and a humiliating crash into the Pacific Ocean.

Olympic medals are about bolstering national pride. Big space missions have always had the same goal. The Apollo missions to the moon were a reaction to Soviet successes in space. Getting Curiosity to Mars will be far more important than Apollo, scientifically speaking, but American scientists would not be celebrating a Chinese landing on Mars with half as much enthusiasm.

That’s because being first to the data is also a matter of national pride. The Chinese had to rewrite their Martian plans after the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission. It was meant to carry China’s Yinghuo-1 probe to Mars to perform analysis of the Martian atmosphere. But next year, NASA will launch a probe that will do what Yinghuo-1 would have done: in January, the director-general of China’s National Space Science Centre told the China Daily that this means China has to change their scientific goals. No one wants the embarrassment of taking silver in the hunt for new discoveries.

Curiosity’s success is also likely to prevent the Chinese accepting America’s offer to collaborate on future Mars missions. Last week, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said the US would seek international partnership for these undertakings. China has been invited to get involved, but national pride is at stake here too. Michael Phelps might as well offer to help the Chinese swim team catch up with the US.

In space exploration, the offer is particularly patrician: by the time manned missions are feasible China will be the world’s biggest economy, and probably the only serious player in space. The 2013 federal budget request, published in February, took 20 percent off NASA’s planetary science funding.  The Mars program budget could plummet from $587 million today to $189 million by 2015. A future manned mission to Mars will be far beyond NASA’s means.

If researchers in Beijing have any sense of how the land lies, a life-detection mission seems like a good next step.  Curiosity won’t look for life for political reasons. The 1976 Viking missions had to report a negative result in their search for life on Mars. Though interesting to scientists, it sounded like failure to politicians. NASA really can’t afford to invoke the F-word these days, so it has decided not to ask the question. Instead, the rover will hunt for carbon-based molecules that are deemed essential for the existence of life – past or present – on Mars and use its laser, cameras and other imaging equipment to examine rocks to gain a better understanding of Martian geology.

But if the Chinese do steal a march with the detection of alien life, it won’t happen for years yet. Curiosity, having done the hard work, just has to turn in some great pictures and data, and the US will hold onto the gold medal for Mars exploration for the foreseeable future.


Red planet: the film showed a manned mission to Mars. Photo: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.