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Geeks Vs. Jocks: The Battle Between The Mars Probe And The Olympics

By Peter V. Milo
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The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team in the MSL Mission Support Area reacts after learning the the Curiosity rover has landed safely on Mars (Photo by Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images)

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team in the MSL Mission Support Area reacts after learning the the Curiosity rover has landed safely on Mars (Photo by Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images)

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LONDON (CBS Tampa) — The Olympics is an example of the pageantry, the will, and physical strength of humanity, and every four years the world watches their champions compete.

However, during this Olympic cycle, something else happened roughly 350 million miles away on an alien planet that got the world’s attention — the landing of the Mars probe Curiosity.

At first blush, Curiosity seems like it would have an extraordinary price tag, and it does. To design, launch, and land the newest Mars probe cost $2.6 billion.

The Olympics, on the other hand, will cost the U.K. over $15 billion dollars. That includes the much maligned opening ceremony and the security measures that the English implemented. Taxes are also going to be raised to pay for it.

Although the common argument to host the Olympics is for the influx of money that comes in during the games, Londoners are not seeing it. NBC reports that local businesses have not seen an increase in profits.

“Not a single extra person has come to us because of the Olympics,” Roger Love, co-owner of a gym in London, told NBC. “The local area is as quiet as it was the morning after last year’s riots.”

London would not be the first host city to face financial issues because of the Olympics. Montreal was in debt for 30 years after they hosted the games. Also, some blame the Olympics for the state of Greece’s economy.

Beijing, which hosted the Olympics in 2008, has not fared much better. National Stadium, hailed in audio tours as “a symbol of the rise of the Chinese nation that will follow the nation’s footsteps in its rise to glory,” might be converted to a shopping mall.

Athletes’ families are having financial issues as well. The family home of gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte is being foreclosed on and the mother of Gabby Douglas — the first African-American to win the gold medal in women’s gymnastics all-around competition — has filed for bankruptcy.

Compared to the fleeting glory of the Olympics, Mars rover Curiosity is part of a bigger investment.

Curiosity only cost a fraction of NASA’s budget, and its construction created 7,000 jobs across 31 states. It is a continuation of the mission of the previous two probes, Spirit and Opportunity, which NASA sent to Mars in the early 2000s. Their mission is to find organics in Martian soil, such as water. It is also going to determine if microbes have ever lived on Mars.

The landing Curiosity made was extremely difficult and the first of its kind.

The probe first needed to travel 350 million miles and entered Mars’ atmosphere at 13,000 mph. The friction that the probe faced rose the heat shield’s temperature to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was so hot, NASA described it as glowing like “the surface of the sun.”

On top of that, Mars’ thin atmosphere only slowed down Curiosity to about 5,000 mph. NASA deployed the largest supersonic parachute ever to slow down the probe. The chute alone needed to withstand 6,500 pounds of force, while only weighing 100 pounds.

The parachute slowed Curiosity down to 200 mph, and that still was not slow enough to land safely, so the chute was cut off and rockets were deployed.

After some maneuvering, Curiosity landed via “sky crane.” At Curiosity’s landing zone, the landing craft hovered as it lowered Curiosity slowly and carefully so it would not get damaged from dust or impact with the ground — the first time this maneuver was done on a space mission.

Each part of the landing needed to work perfectly. If one part failed, Curiosity would be Mars’ newest crater, and the whole operation needed to be done blind-folded.

A radio signal takes 14 minutes to get from Mars to Earth and the entire sequence had to be done within seven minutes, meaning each part of Curiosity’s landing had to be automated via its onboard computers. The programming alone was 500,000 lines of code, and it needed to be flawless.

Its success maintained the American lead in space travel and aeronautics. It was the newest “space moment” that could generate more interest in the sciences for the younger generations, like how the moon landing inspired children in its day.

It was a moment that brought people together as millions watched Curiosity’s landing live online. A screen was even set-up in New York City’s Times Square where there was a huge crowd to watch the probe’s landing.

Curiosity is building up to something bigger, namely the first manned mission to Mars.

Charles Bolden, an administrator for NASA, wrote in the Orlando Sentinel: “This mission is a precursor to sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”

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