Why Did Curiosity’s Landing Generate So Much Attention?

Take a look at the image to the right. Care to guess what you’re looking at?

I might very well be wrong, but I imagine that more than a few people would guess that they are looking at an image of Curiosity during its descent stage onto the surface of Mars — there’s the chute and there’s the capsule. This would be a reasonable conjecture, but also an incorrect one.

The image is of another rover, Phoenix, making its final descent onto the surface of Mars on May 25, 2008. Remember that one? I didn’t. It was, as it turns out, the first time the landing of one spacecraft on the surface of a planet was photographed by another spacecraft.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of my own forgetfulness or inattentiveness, but I was surprised to learn that Curiosity’s successful landing was the sixth such success in NASA’s history.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 each landed on Mars in 1976. The Mars Pathfinder and its rover, Sojourner landed in 1997. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004. And finally, Phoenix, landed in 2007. (Check out a great info graphic of missions to Mars here. H/T Jeremy Antley.)

I’ve been a low-level space geek since I was child, and so I wasn’t entirely oblivious to this history. But being reminded of it did make the publicity surrounding Curiosity, well, curious.

Why was it that Curiosity’s landing was received with such fanfare? And why was it that it evoked such a powerful emotional response when previous landings, recent and impressive, had not?

Naturally, I took to Twitter with my query. Now, I don’t have nearly enough followers to make this as fruitful a venture as it might be for others, but, thanks to some retweets, it did return a few interesting suggestions.

Here was my initial tweet:

My suggestions were arrived at as follows. Size? Curiosity was by far the largest such vehicle. Degree of difficulty? Given its size, landing the rover safely necessitated an ingenious and elaborate multi-stage landing system. Trailer? I was referring to the dramatically titled video produced by NASA, “Seven Minutes of Terror,” depicting Curiosity’s planned descent. Social media? Well, for starters, Curiosity has its own twitter feed: MarsCuriosity.

So what kind of responses did I get? A few suggested what one person neatly summed up as “Space shuttle ennui.” In other words, Curiosity stepped in to fill a gap created by the retirement of the space shuttles — the last voyage of which tapped the technological sublime.

Relatedly, it was suggested that Curiosity filled a void created by the absence of any inspiring visions for our future in relation to space, or perhaps for any future.

Others pointed to some variation of the suggestions I offered. The complexity of the skycrane, social media coverage of the landing, and NASA’s improved self-promotion.

All of these seem to have some role to play in creating the event that was Curiosity’s landing — the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video hooked me — but I’m not sure that any of these alone, or even all of them together satisfactorily explain the phenomenon.

Here’s my take as it stands: It mostly is a case of the distinctly American technological sublime. This actually draws both streams of responses together: those that focused on the filling up of some collectively felt absence and those that emphasized the sophistication of the technology involved. David Nye’s account of the American technological sublime included both the existential experience of a technology that left one in awe and a participation in what amounted to a (Durkheimian) civil religion.

As a civil religious experience, the technological sublime provided a sense of national identity, purpose, and destiny. Experiences of the technological sublime — whether seeing the first railroads or the first electrified cityscapes, standing before the Hoover Dam, or witnessing a Saturn V launch, to name a few instances — forged the collective national character. They were rituals of solidarity. They inspired confidence in what we could accomplish and, therefore, hope for the future.

It could be argued that we are a nation casting about for renewed unity and sense of purpose. There is a felt need for what the technological sublime had supplied earlier generations of Americans. The consumer technologies which surround us today, impressive as they are in many respects, don’t quite have the capacity to elicit the sublime experience. In part, because they merely (and “merely” is not  quite the right word there) enhance or repackage what earlier technologies had first accomplished long ago. The latest cell phone technology can never compete with the experience of hearing a voice over the telephone for the first time, for example.

Curiosity stepped into this fractured and disillusioned cultural milieu and it was dynamic and extraordinary enough to evoke the sublime response. Remember the tears that flowed at mission control. It was the right technology, at the right time. And social media supplied the sense of collective experience so critical to its civil religious function.

So now your thoughts. Did you tune in to the live feed from mission control? Did you give Curiosity more attention than you usually would to the space program? Were you moved by the whole thing? Did you notice that this was the case for others even if wasn’t quite your reaction? Pure media hype? Sheer awesomeness? To what does Curiosity owe its vaunted status?

Maybe its all just Curiosity’s WALL•E-esque anthropomorphic charm. Or, am I the only one that sees that?

17 thoughts on “Why Did Curiosity’s Landing Generate So Much Attention?

  1. For me, it was like the moon landing in 1969 all over again! I stayed up to watch the live feed and even stayed up to watch the post-EDL press conference.

    Accordingly, I am very happy FOR those who worked on Curiosity’s EDL and am now paying attention to the ongoing work of the science team as well as those who are tending to the MRO and Odyssey which are relaying data back to earth from Curiosity as well as capturing images of the EDL itself and its artifacts. As you can see, I AM PAYING ATTENTION :-)

    The EDL first struck me as “Rube Goldberg”-esque so I think that’s what initially attracted my attention when I realized the COMPLEXITY to autonomously put Curiosity safely on Mars! Eventually, I hope to learn more about the information technology which enabled that task…it’s both a professional as well as personal interest of mine.

    I suppose I can best summarize my passion by pointing out that I realize how hard it is to get all of this RIGHT…I did NOT realize that when I was more than 40 years younger!

    1. Loved the Rube Goldberg analogy. I think the complexity of the landing system certainly went a long way toward capturing attention, I know it was part of what drew me to follow the landing early Monday morning.

  2. I watched NASA TV during the landing. You could feel the excitement from the control room. I believe that the big interest in this was the complexity of the landing, and the absence of human control. Also, the anxious waiting to find out if the mission succeeded.

    1. I wonder how many of those watching live realized it had ALREADY happened because it takes so long for the signal to travel back to earth? Probably very few because it’s most likely those who stayed up to watch live or weren’t doing something else were more than merely “curious” about Curiosity!

    2. Definitely. It struck me that the terror in the “Seven Minutes of Terror” was all on the side of the engineers, etc. watching to see if all of their work (to say nothing of the money invested) would pay off. Lots of suspense.

  3. I had the same question: Why is this Mars landing generating all this attention when this isn’t the first time this has happened? When I first started hearing about it, I assumed there had to be some big new thing we were doing: “Are we putting people up there or something? Oh, no, it’s just Wall-E.” (You’re so right about the Wall-E likeness.) I think you’re right on about the technological sublime driving the captivation with Curiosity, but as you noted, the question is “Why now?” I think you’ve hit on it — it became a fulfilled a desire for unity in an increasingly ideologically fractured population, and a big part of the timing is that we now have the technological ability to be intimately engaged with the process, and NASA has been actively cultivating Curiosity’s following. It worked — in the last few days, I’ve seen the most unlikely people become engaged with space exploration. I’m wondering whether this is a blip or a trend.

    1. I’m tempted to say that it may be more blip than trend. Live by social media, die by social media. In other words, social media has an economy of attention that does not seem to support long standing trends. Arab Spring? Occupy? Bueller?

      1. But that’s assuming that this really was mostly driven by social media. If you’re right in that the technological sublime has found a new home in the marvels of space exploration, and that this is filling a need for a new unifying civic religion, then it might be more of a trend than a novelty.

  4. I disagree with your conclusion in that you used the word “American” way too many times. I am from the US, but currently live outside the country, and almost all of my friends here were extremely interested in and enthusiastic about Curiosity (none of whom are American). I was actually on a plane when Curiosity landed, and when I returned to the surface of the Earth and logged into Facebook I was flooded by pictures, comments, tweets, narrations, and general excitement generated by the landing (Curiosity’s, not mine). Maybe within the United States, what you say applies, but there is more to it than that, I think. Perhaps it is not we as “a nation” that are looking for a renwed sense of purpose, but we as a planet, and regardless of NASA’s nationality, this was seen as an accomplishment by all of us.

    1. Thanks for the comment and my apologies for taking so long to respond. You make a great point. My comments were focused on the American scene in part because that is what I know best. Nye’s thesis about what he called the “American technological sublime” seemed to me to have something of value to say about the buzz generated by Curiosity (That’s why “American” was mentioned so often, it was part of the name for the distinctive dynamic Nye identified.) A week later, I’m not sure how much weight I’d give it. All that to say, that I appreciate the international perspective. I would be curious to know, a week and a half on from the event, if the buzz has kept up or largely dissipated in your part of the world.

  5. “Maybe its all just Curiosity’s WALL•E-esque anthropomorphic charm. Or, am I the only one that sees that?”
        Yes, I think so. And that allusion reveals the “Elephant in the room”: Is there or has there ever been life on Mars? The early missions had the first “false alarm” where they tried to grow microbes and thought the reactions they detected fit the paradigm and parameters they had set up. But since it was “too good to be true” they went hunting for exotic inorganic reactions or for organics produced by non-living processes or some other possibilities or… But anyway, they found a way to say, “Don’t get too excited: there’s no possibility of life on Mars.” Then the later missions started the quandary again with the hard to explain seasonal methane plumes, and the water and other intriguing things. But once again they were able to finesse a great big “Maybe but unlikely.”
        Here we go again. They are raising expectations and they will poo-poo them down again. If they find organics it will be inconclusive. If they see any “fossils” of microbial life it will be called inorganic crystalline artifacts or microscopic bubbles or some such, but in any case, it will once again be “inconclusive.”
        I think many people won’t say so, but they’re waiting for the “big announcement”. If it doesn’t come in a few months most people will lose interest.
        The other “Elephant in the room”: If there is life on Mars, it’s likely that there is life all over the galaxy, and somewhere there’s intelligent life. If there’s intelligent life then all organized traditional Religions will have a major problem. Aliens on other planets will have their own history, their own prophets, their own religious experiences and miracles, their own interpretation of God or gods. And if they are more advanced they will consider us silly primitives and will want to stamp out our religions just as we have tried to do with Native and Shaman cultures on Earth. They will consider us like a lost primitive tribe in the rain forest. They certainly will not respect our primitive rituals and beliefs because we will seem technologically backward. Look at our attitude about the beliefs of people on Earth who don’t even know how to fly around the Earth, or don’t have a car or horse and just walk everywhere; we have contempt for their religions. So to an advanced space alien, all of our religions will invalid. Or they will just humor us and seem politely amused.
        Then there are those who believe that space aliens have already landed on Earth. Because NASA doesn’t want to encourage them, they can not announce definitively that there could have been life on Mars or there is now, even if it’s just microbial. The answer once again will be “Maybe”.
        Yes, sure, it may be true that there is no life and never has been any life on Mars. But the government and by extension NASA has lied so often that it’s difficult for anyone to know what’s true. People will not be interested in rocks unless they are gold or some other valuable substance. Look, distrust started in 1947 in Roswell when something crashed. The local people saw it. The local paper called the air base and the story was CONFIRMED. When they tried to put it on the AP wire it was stopped. Then Washington ordered the base to hold a press conference where they showed a “weather balloon”. That was an obvious silly lie. Was it a top-secret experimental plane etc. — who knows. So it’s the conspiracies that push people’s emotional buttons:

    Timid Whistling On Mars

    Oh my murdered friend,
    have whistles yet
    been blown for you?
    Are none of
    your secrets heard?

    Oh by your grave
    no one knows where
    the weather balloons are.

    How many years must
    methane blow
    before life is revealed?

    The answer’s on Mars
    and not in the stars, and
    there’s a timid whistle in the wind.

    Oh how many years ago
    was it heard that you
    were murdered
    for secrets more precious than you?

    Oh I don’t believe that
    you were blowing in the wind,
    oh I believe you were whistling
    truth’s precious tune.

    How many years must
    methane blow
    before life is revealed.

    You don’t have to be a rocket scientist
    to know which way the whistle blows
    ’cause everybody knows
    there’s life on Mars.

    Oh my murdered friend,
    have whistles yet
    been blown for you?
    Are none of
    your secrets heard?

    If you think there were
    weather balloons over Roswell,
    wait ’til you see them on Mars,
    ’cause artifacts will not be denied,
    and whistle blowers are
    waiting in the wings.
    — Douglas Gilbert


  6. P.S. Typo: I meant to say, “So to an advanced space alien, all of our religions will be invalid.”
        In an odd way I think it may have something to do with returning to nature in the sense you spoke about in your previous essay. As you say in The Smart Phone in the Garden, Part Two
    [“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated,” Cronon concludes further on, “could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.” The binary of wilderness and civilization, in other words, abandons the garden ideal altogether.]
    So maybe people are looking for a new “wilderness” and a new garden infused with a new spirit, all of Earth becoming the Urban technological island with all wilderness cataloged.

    1. “So maybe people are looking for a new “wilderness” and a new garden infused with a new spirit, all of Earth becoming the Urban technological island with all wilderness cataloged.”

      That’s an interesting perspective, I’ll have to think on that.

  7. I’m interested in the old science vs religion debate, mainly because it doesn’t really have to be a debate at all. I think it was a book I read by Stephen J. Gould that put my mind at rest about that one.

    Incidentally, I came across your site because one of your blog postings was chosen for ‘Freshly Pressed’. I’ve got a new blog site, and am hoping I get freshly pressed, so I was seeing if I could pick up some tips. My blog’s about current affairs and the zeitgeist here in the UK, and I’m going to try and keep all my postings brief and to the point.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. You’ll notice that I sometimes tend not to keep things brief and to the point. More recently, I’m beginning to think that this is the way to go. And if there are longer pieces to be written, they can be broken down into smaller posts. Something to be said for brevity, particularly in this medium.

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