Yawns as a sign of Progress

The director of JPL, Charles Elachi, gave a great talk at Cornell today. I was impressed by his use of intuitively and emotionally resonant examples like pointing out how long it would take to drive to Mars to illustrate the distance from here to there.

What really got me thinking was when he showed a video of huge groups of people (in addition to the mission control staff) reacting jubilantly to Curiosity landing safely after the ‘7 minutes of terror.’ Some of them were so happy, they were practically crying. I felt those intense emotions too, both during the actual event and while watching the video.

But I also felt a twinge of annoyance. It confused me at first, but then I realized why: I’m annoyed that space exploration is basically as much a risky, extraordinary achievement as it was when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon almost half a decade ago. It’s weird, but sometimes it feels like an endeavor is only truly successful when ever-adaptable humans don’t even think twice about it anymore.

There has been some normalization of space – nobody cares when another GPS satellite is launched, or the crew out on the ISS. However, I feel like that normalization has stalled. Unlike, say, tablets or LEDs I can’t point to anything in space that has normalized recently nor anything that is a big deal now that will be normalized soon.

It’s funny to want this schizophrenia: get more excited! Ok – now stop! But I think that’s a sign of real progress, filtered through the lens of human behavior.


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