Now that everyone has completed a couple of days worth of exchanging high fives over NASA's (technically very impressive) success in landing the Curiosity rover on Mars' frigid surface, maybe it's time for a colder appraisal of what this mission is really about. We'll all wait with interest to see what Curiosity can discover about the ancient past of Mars, but satisfying such simple curiosity is not the rover's true purpose.
As media coverage has uniformly noted, this is about finding evidence of past or even present life, or at least the "ingredients" of life. As if the mere presence of such ingredients would tell you anything about whether life in fact ever existed there. I had the ingredients of many a fine and healthful homemade meal in our refrigerator last night, yet I ate takeout for dinner.
Now that it has reached Mars, Curiosity ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life -- or might even still harbor life today. Far larger than earlier rovers, Curiosity is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that has ever been sent to another planet. It is to spend at least two years examining rocks within the 96-mile crater it landed in, looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that early Mars had conditions friendly for life.
Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates Curiosity and many other planetary missions, said it was well worth the money and compared the night's exhilaration to an adventure movie.
"This movie cost you less than seven bucks per American citizen, and look at the excitement we got," Dr. Elachi exulted.
An adventure movie? That's the motivation? I don't think so -- and if you doubt me, take note of the speaker: Dr. Elachi of NASA's JPL, an organization whose own scientific culture and seething bias against intelligent design we've documented here at great length in the context of the David Coppedge case.
Make no mistake, NASA has committed $2.5 billion to this little project in large part to satisfy a need in the culture of Big Science -- a culture that extends far beyond the professional ranks of actual scientists -- for validation of a particular worldview. In that worldview, life arises and evolves spontaneously -- it must do so -- reflecting no purpose or design, given a handful of (not especially elevated) ingredients and enough time.
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