We need that buzz of excitement that comes from exploring something new.
During the moon landing in July 1969 that was so dramatically televised throughout the world, who didn't imagine themselves in the shoes of Neil Armstrong? For that fleeting moment we all wanted to be there. But four months later we had landed again -- this time as tourists. It was undoubtedly an incredible mission filled with great science, but it couldn't capture the same sense of excitement of Armstrong's landing in the mind of the public.
And just getting there isn't enough. To be an explorer, you have to move. Poke around. Look under a rock. Climb a mountain. When Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492 after a five-week voyage, he didn't stop and spend the rest of his time drawing pictures of the beach. He dove in. He explored. He sailed to other islands. He didn't take photographs from 200,000 feet up. He dug through the bushes like we all did when we were kids. He got his clothes dirty and probably broke a bone or two.
Don't get me wrong -- orbiting a distant planet and taking millions of photos from space is good science. But it isn't really exploration. Thankfully, as technology improves our ability to act as true explorers without risking the lives of actual humans increases. NASA's intrepid Mars rovers are excellent examples of this.
Spirit and Opportunity were true explorers, and we were riveted to their journey. These robots drove around, drilled rocks and careened through craters. These were robots willing to get dirty. Dust storms? Rocks blocking the path? Bring it! Opportunity drove down the edge of Victoria crater and struggled to get back up to the rim. She found the first meteorite on another planet. Spirit's wheel spun in the sand and we worried about her. She never got out, but she had a good five years on Mars -- throwing herself headlong into a hostile and treacherous environment.
Why did the world pay so much more attention to these plucky rovers than the Viking missions to Mars? Because Spirit and Opportunity were explorers. We've all been stuck in the snow or had a flat tire interrupt our travels. And when Spirit and Opportunity encountered similar troubles we empathize in a way that we can't with a Viking craft that just sat there on the surface. The next rover set to head to Mars, Curiosity, already has 29,000 Twitter followers and 4,700 Facebook fans. I'm betting she will have plenty of adventures to report back.
So what is in store for us fifty years from now? Plenty of good science, sure. But the kid inside me is hoping for more exploration. Let's get a craft to splash through a coronal mass ejection. Let's drill through the ice of Europa and swim through the waters below. Let's cut an asteroid in half. Let's sail a submarine through the liquid surface of Jupiter.
For the next 50 years, let's not forget that kid inside all of us. The one that didn't mind getting an occasional bruise or scrape. I'm sure Yuri wouldn't want it any other way.