Americans' idea of space exploration is based mostly on movie and television fiction. "To boldly go where no man has gone before." "Open the pod bay doors, HAL." "To infinity and beyond."
Oddly, though, our perception of real space exploration also comes to us through the screen, as it did late Sunday night, when the Curiosity rover transmitted its first grainy pictures from the surface of Mars.
At that point the rational mind has to make a distinction between fiction and fact, though both are perceived the same way. When it does, and it is convinced that the Curiosity rover is real, not fiction, it is awed. It is wowed. It is dazzled.
In fact, when it comes to feats of real space engineering, it doesn't get much better than Curiosity.
Earthlings have been buzzing ever since. "How do they do that?" everyone wonders.
How do those nerds at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory send a spacecraft 352 million miles to Mars, a journey that takes nine months, slow it from a speed of 13,000 miles per hour using the planet's thin atmosphere and a parachute, then drop it gently onto the surface via ropes from a hovering space crane? It sounds like fiction, but it's not.
It makes Americans very proud, and rightly so. There hasn't been a manned moon mission for four decades, and now even the space shuttles all are retired. America's great achievements in space are in the past, many people say.
That's baloney. Look at Curiosity, a robot the size of a car that is scheduled to explore Mars for the next two years. Its mission is to try to find out whether the area of the Gale Crater, where it set down, on target, can support microbial life, or ever could. It will sample the rocks and soil and test them in what amounts to a mobile science lab, sending the results back to Earth in transmissions that take 14 minutes because they come from so far away.
It will bore into rocks using a laser. (There's that intersection of fact and fiction again.) Did we mention that the rover is powered by plutonium?
Sending humans into space to explore is more adventurous than sending robots, because humans can die. But in terms of science, the robots have done a magnificent job at a fraction of the cost and at no risk to human life. NASA's two earlier rovers, which set down in 2004, changed the perception of Mars and found the first solid evidence of water. They continued to operate far beyond their planned lives.
Let's hope that the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission meets with the same success. It's off to a great start.
Here's to the nerds.