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Will Curiosity Kill The Mars Landing?

08/04/2012 11:23 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Evan Esar famously quipped (as he made a living of doing) that: "Success is the good fortune that comes from aspiration, desperation, perspiration and inspiration." Late Sunday night (for those on the west coast) and pre-dawn Monday morning (for the rest of us in Canada), the U.S. Space Agency NASA will go all in on Mr. Esar's thesis.

This is when the scary-looking, laser-carrying, plutonium-powered Mars Science Laboratory robot rover, named Curiosity in 2009 by sixth grade student Clara Ma from Lenexa, Kansas, attempts to make a soft landing inside of an ancient meteorite impact crater on Mars. Because the rover weighs nearly a ton, it will be slowed down to safe landing speed in the thin Martian atmosphere by a series of aerobatic twists and turns reminiscent of Gabby Douglas' recent performance on the uneven bars at the London 2012 Olympics. After watching NASA's jaw-dropping, Ridley-Scott-style video "Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror" of the hair-raising descent sequence, people are invariably heard asking if this is really the best way to land an expensive (US$2.5 billion) spacecraft, or, to put it bluntly, is it really just engineers-on-steroids?

The scientific stakes are high: if the landing is good, about five days later, Curiosity will begin moving toward a 5.5-kilometre-high mound of sedimentary rocks in the center of the crater. It will spend the next Martian year (687 Earth days) and probably many more searching for traces of carbon in the rocks that might have been involved in the genesis of microbial life some 3.5 billion years ago on the red planet.

We shall all know very soon if the engineers' daring plan worked but, land safely or crash, the attempt is in the best tradition of technological innovation and exploration that has spurred development of civilization for centuries. And perhaps because the mission is so risky, it has grabbed the attention of the general public in a way that few scientific expeditions have since the Apollo, Moon landings. Curiosity's attempted landing will be shown live on the huge Toshiba Vision screen in New York City's Times Square. Numerous formal and informal landing parties are being held in Canada and around the world. The Canadian Space Agency has organized for the event on twitter (#CSATweetup). The landing will be streamed live on the JPL and NASA websites.

Succeed or fail, it is likely that a good many people are being inspired by Curiosity, including some of whom may aspire to take on similar challenges in all walks of life in the years ahead.