The survival of a robot provokes a scene of unbridled humanity.
Last night, just after 10:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, NASA's Curiosity rover touched down on Mars. For the NASA scientists, engineers, and flight controllers who orchestrated the mobile science lab's trip, the seven minutes of terror that characterized the vehicle's descent into the Martian atmosphere were more terror-filled than they were for the rest of us: The rover, for NASA's earth-bound space explorers, represented not just financial expense, and not just exploration, but also hard work and determination and passion.
So it's fantastic to witness NASA's reaction to the news that Curiosity's trip has been, so far, successful. You can see it here -- in the form of a glorious, epic GIF -- and you can watch it in video form in the clip above.
The Big Moment comes at minute 2:30 in the video, with the giddy announcement: "Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars."
Then commences an exuberant combination of: crying, clapping, hugging, laughing, whooping, fist-pumping, first-bumping, hand-shaking, back-slapping, and, finally, okay-everyone-get-back-to-work-ing.
But the video goes on. The Curiosity landing's next big announcement -- "we've got thumbnails!" -- comes in at minute 4:37, and meets much the same reaction as the touchdown itself. (The thumbnail news is historic both for its confirmation that Curiosity is able to transmit Martian data back to Earth -- without which the whole thing would be pointless -- and for its marking of the first time in the course of human events that a "we've got thumbnails!" announcement has actually elicited applause.)
History is similarly made at minute 5:07, with another joyful exclamation: "It's a wheel!" (See above for the historic implications.) And then again at minute 7:07, as the first high-res images of Mars -- and of Curiosity itself -- stream in.
The whole thing is a scene of wonderful humanity: All that effort, all that expense, all that uncertainty ... having found, finally, success. Against many, many odds. There were several ironic comparisons made, last night, between the Curiosity landing and the Olympics; but it's hard not to appreciate the sincere similarities shared among NASA's intellectual athletes and their sports-focused counterparts in London. They all strive. They all work and work and work some more for the remote reward of a singular moment.
This was NASA's moment.