“Let's see where our Curiosity takes us”

One of my earliest memories is of standing with my father after dark on the front lawn of our home in Highland Park, Los Angeles. He pointed at the moon and told me, "There are men up there right now."

The Apollo 11 mission reached the lunar surface on my mother's 24th birthday. I was still weeks shy of my second birthday, so I find it doubtful that this memory (if, indeed, it isn't wholly apocryphal) comes from that first landing. Maybe it was Apollo 12 later that year, or Apollo 14 in 1971 (though that date seems too late). Doesn't matter. I remember feeling a childish awe that people had flown to that distant bright sphere.

No humans landed on Mars last night, just a robotic rover, but the wonder and awe I felt were perhaps even greater than on that Vietnam-era night. Because, in a sense, we all traveled along with Curiosity on its thrilling, harrowing, lonely plunge to the Martian surface. NASA brilliantly sucked us into the narrative by walking us through its "7 Minutes of Terror" in advance, then let us hang out with the gang in mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to live those seven minutes with them. Yes, this is something like the seventh time that humans have landed devices successfully on Mars, but never before have we observers all been able to experience the event with such immediacy, unmediated by professional reporters. I'm not ashamed to say that I burst into tears when Curiosity was reported to have landed safely, and I know from the conversation taking place on Twitter that I was far from the only one who did.

Kind of a silly reaction to the fact that we humans (or some of our smartest representatives) had fired a hunk of metal and glass through space to a soft landing on a neighboring ball of rock, right? Not really. Those first couple of pictures, featuring the wheel or shadow of a human-made object on Mars made clear that, even if most of us had long since come to terms with the fact that we would never set foot on the Red Planet ourselves, an emissary could still go there for us and make its first task upon arrival to send us back photos. And that was almost as wondrous as being there.