In anticipation of the Mars landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover vehicle on Aug. 3, Stephen Colbert invited NASA associate administrator for science missions and former astronaut John Grunsfeld onto “The Colbert Report ” to talk about the mission. But partway through the interview, Grunsfeld said he’d like to make a “bold prediction.” He said that the Curiosity rover would not discover anything on Mars.
“I’m going to make a bold prediction,” he said. “And that prediction is that the Curiosity rover is going to discover nothing on Mars. It’s going to roll around for two years doing its wonderful scientific mission, looking at the rocks, drilling into it, analyzing the rocks to determine if there was ever life on Mars or organic material. But it’s not going to discover a thing.”
Colbert, an avid proponent of the Space Program, seemed taken aback by the prognostication. He turned to face a camera and stated: “Well, thank you for joining us,” disappointment evident in his tone.
Grunsfeld quickly tossed in: “But people on Earth, scientists on Earth, are going to discover all kinds of incredible things.”
Colbert immediately understood that he’d been taken in on a technicality, that the rover, officially the Mars Science Laboratory , was just a tool that would simply gather the information to transmit to Earth. The scientists would make the actual discoveries. “You scare me for a second,” he said. “I thought it was just a big cash dump for the government.”
All joking aside, the Curiosity rover program, according to the agency’s press kit , cost NASA around $2.5 billion, with the spacecraft and rover totaling $1.8 billion. It will reach the Martian atmosphere late Sunday evening and begin what scientists have labeled the “seven minutes of terror,” which is the time it will take for the spacecraft to enter and descend through the atmosphere, deploy its parachute, fire off braking thrusters, and reach the surface.
All of it will be done by remote control and NASA won’t even know if Curiosity has made a successful landing for over 14 minutes, the time it takes for a transmission to reach the Earth from Mars.
But NASA’s track record in this regard is relatively excellent when compared with other nations. In fact, the United States is the only country to have placed multiple exploratory vehicles on the Martian surface that continued to operate. The only other nation to successfully put a lander on Mars besides the U.S. was the USSR, which placed the first lander on the surface in 1971. However, after 15 seconds the Mars 3 stopped transmitting information back to Earth.
The Viking 1 mission would see the first American space vehicle successfully land on the Red Planet in 1976. Although there were a few unsuccessful missions that followed, most of NASA’s missions to Mars have been at least partially successful. The U.S. placed a number of landers and rovers on the surface, including Viking 2, Pathfinder, Opportunity, and Curiosity’s immediate predecessor, the lander Phoenix. Opportunity, the last rover sent to Mars, remains operational at the edge of Endeavour crater.
The biggest mystery Curiosity might be able to help solve, as Grunsfeld pointed out, is whether or not life exists or might have once existed on the Solar System’s fourth planet. This, of course, is dependent upon not only a successful landing but also that the scientific equipment necessary for the collection of samples remains operational after the descent.
Colbert has shown an interest in NASA for years. He spent time at the astronaut training facility at the Johnson Space Center in 2010. And when a NASA contest to name a third living node on the International Space Station resulted in Colbert’s name being the most popular choice (due to his active campaigning on “The Colbert Report” and enlisting his viewers’ help), the agency, which reserved the right to name the node something more appropriate, offered Colbert a consolation. NASA later officially renamed the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (or ARED) the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The COLBERT is a treadmill used to keep astronauts in shape while in space.