Bringing our Olympic expectations down to Earth
Trust the Yanks to use a gridiron term to describe the landing of the one-tonne plutonium-powered rover, Curiosity, on Mars.
But it was somewhat appropriate considering the landing itself was something of a “Hail Mary pass” - a phrase that originated in American football, meaning a very long forward pass made with limited chances of success.
The landing yesterday was the “hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic space exploration,” a NASA administrator said.
In “seven minutes of terror” at the end of an eight month journey, the vehicle had to perform never-before-tried acrobatics on a scale a Romanian gymnast would marvel at.
But it was all completed just as flawlessly as Sally Pearson’s stride over 100 metres of hurdles in London a couple of hours later. The small car-sized Curiosity will hunt for evidence that life could have existed on Mars once.
The planetary mission was yet another big gamble in the science of physics that’s paid off this year. At the beginning of July, physicists at Europe’s CERN laboratory discovered the Higgs Boson, the particle that provides matter with mass.
The excitement was contagious here in Oz. Our scientists had a role in both these big discoveries: a Melbourne university professor leading research at CERN, a huge dish in Canberra communicating directly with the space probe.
Australia’s the home of a number of scientific discoveries: the Wi-Fi you might be reading this article thanks to right now; the penicillin that keeps you alive; the recipe for pavlova.
But we’re never going to be able to afford a space program on the scale of NASA’s (even though Gina Rinehart alone could if she wanted to), we’re never going to be able to afford a Large Hadron Collider like Europe’s.
We’ve got people with curiosity, but not the Curiosity. People with a passion for large hadrons - but not the Collider. We’ve got success stories and we really want success stories, but we don’t get gigantic success stories all the time. We have realistic expectations of a country that punches above her weight.
That’s the way it should be with sport. Waaaaaaaaaambulances across the nation have been called for pundits who reckon our athletes are failures for only bringing back silver medals from the London Games, beaten by countries with populations more than 20 times the size of ours.
Yesterday a triumphant American rocket scientist said at a press conference: “Tomorrow we’re going to start exploring Mars. And next week and next month and next year, we’ll be bringing new discoveries every day, every week, to all of you.”
We don’t expect our mathletes or our athletes to win gold “every day, every week”.
Just a Hail Mary pass to pay off from time-to-time is fine, thanks.
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