Aug. 8 2012 08:41 AM

Human beings are capable such incredible things

Artist’s rendering of the sky crane
Image by NASA

At 10:15 p.m. on Sunday, West Coast time, a hovering crane gently lowered a 1-ton, plutonium-powered vehicle onto the surface of Mars, having traveled for more than eight months—154 million miles—to get there from Earth. That such a thing can be delivered safely from one planet to another is mind-scrambling in itself—especially for those of us still flummoxed by the light bulb—but that’s old hat by now; what’s truly awe-inspiring was the novel way in which the vehicle, the Mars Curiosity Rover, was placed on the surface after shooting into Mars’ atmosphere at 13,000 mph.

At 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, Midwest time, a man entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., armed with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, and murdered six people between the ages of 39 and 84—five men and a woman—before critically wounding a police lieutenant and then being shot dead by other officers. The killings came just 16 days after the last high-profile American murder spree, when 24-year-old James Holmes gunned down 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

The day began with one American taking the lives of six people and wreaking untold emotional trauma on countless others, and it ended with a collective of scientists, engineers and other specialists enthralling the world with yet another remarkable achievement. In the morning, news reports showed suffering. In the evening, they showed jubilation.

The prolonged orgy of hugs and high-fives at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena was proportionate to the accomplishment. Scientists used Mars’ atmosphere to slow the spacecraft carrying the Mars Curiosity Rover down to about 1,000 mph and then deployed a parachute to finish the brake. Then thrusters were used to position the craft in the right place—the exact location on Mars where these scientists actually planned to land. Then the craft turned into a hovering crane and lowered the rover down to the surface. Finally, the craft, having done its job, sped off to die, making sure that it didn’t drop onto the $2.5 billion rover and smash it to bits. It worked to perfection. It was freakin’ amazing.

The next morning, the world learned that the man who killed the Sikh worshippers was Wade Page, a 40-year-old white-supremacist Army veteran who was never deployed before being discharged. According to The New York Times, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, had Page on its radar for a decade “because of his affiliation with rock bands known for lyrics that push far past the boundaries of tolerance.” Of course, these big-news massacres are tips of icebergs; more than 27 U.S. residents, on average, are murdered by gun-wielding people every day.

We can only hope that the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover, and its discoveries that lie ahead in the months to come, inspires millions of American children to pursue scientific exploration as their life’s work. Science has taken such a far-back seat when it comes to the interests of kids in the U.S. We don’t know how many foreign immigrants helped send the rover safely to Mars, but it’s a safe bet that there were plenty.

We can only imagine how difficult it is for foreigners living and working here to answer their children’s questions about why Page would charge into a temple and start shooting innocent people he didn’t even know. They’ll have to tell them that there are people who are simply driven mad by blind hatred of others—Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Indian, Arab, Mexican, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, Jewish, black or gay—who are different from them. We can’t imagine what kind of fearful imprint that might leave on a child and how it might hinder their progress.

Sunday showed the outer limits of what human beings are capable of when the pressure is on. We can commit irrational unspeakable atrocities against other people and inflict dreadful pain on whole communities. And we can rise with unthinkable genius and the kind of collective brainpower that solves seemingly insurmountable problems for the benefit of the whole world. Each of us is alive for a mere blip on the time continuum and yet capable of leaving such a lasting mark while we’re around.

Through it all, the Earth and Mars just keep on spinning and orbiting around the sun, no matter what. 

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