In July of 1969, I was captivated by the first ever landing of humans on the Moon. I was obsessed by the space program. I read every article in newspapers and magazines I could find. I collected and collaged my bedroom with posters of the human travels into space, beginning in earnest with the Apollo 8 mission. When Neill Armstrong stepped upon the Moon, my family and I (like just about ever other household) huddled around the 19" Zenith black & white and watched the snowy video from the Moon. My young imagination was sparked. With the Moon now conquered, my dream was to be the first man on Mars.
In 1969, that humans would walk upon Mars in my life time seemed like a no brainer. Many anticipated it would happen before the end of the 20th century. Of course, the shear difficulty and danger of such a mission proved way more daunting than a young mind could appreciate. But I was not alone. TV shows such as Star Trek, Lost in Space, Space 1999, to name a few were inspired by the lunar space program. I recently have been reading the works of Philip K. Dick, who wrote in the 50's, 60's and 70's, and his works are filled with references to human colonization of Mars. My favorite book on Mars colonization, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, inspired a TV movie of the same name in the 70's.
Well now it appears very unlikely that humans will land on Mars in my life time. Inter planet travel is incredibly dangerous. Radiation bursts from the Sun. Meteors the size of grains of sand delivering kinetic energy equivalent to explosive tipped missiles. Distances that are mind bogglingly far. This and more means that getting to Mars is no easy maneuver. Once there, the environment is incredibly harsh and lethal to all Earth bound life forms - such as humans. This says nothing of the effort for an exploration crew to get back safely to Earth.
So if we can't get there, we send our sentries, our facsimiles - the robots. In dramatic fashion, the latest sentry from planet Earth arrived at Mars this week - Curiosity. Armed with the best and most capable tools yet to land on a foreign land, Curiosity is armed with the tools to determine if life ever existed on Mars, and perhaps, even exists today!
The robots must go in our place, until we can master the incredible distances and incredible dangers of a trip to Mars. Those things which would doom a human mission are mere inconveniences for our robot sentries. The distance, the cold, the radiation, etc. of space are tolerable by a robot. Once on Mars, the cold, harsh environment is a sunny, refreshingly brisk winter day for the robot. Of course, sand storms, lack of solar energy and rocky terrain, provide challenges. But as the predecessors of Curiosity have proven, these can be overcome.
Robot technology is also helping humans do what we didn't think could be done a few years ago. Remote surgery in a war zone can be accomplished by a surgeon thousands of miles away, utilizing a surgical robot. Even when surgeon and robot are in the same room, the surgeon guided robot allows the human to make subtle and precise movements not possible by human hands.
Going where no human has gone, our robotic tools pave the way for us.
P.S. NASA - should things change and you are looking for a 50-something marketing executive to fly to Mars, I'm your man!