Nine months after it launched from Earth, the planetary rover Curiosity touched down gently this week, in a 96-mile-wide crater on Mars.
NASA scientists and engineers fretted over the $2.5 billion mission from its November liftoff to the so-called "seven minutes of terror," as the descent module cut through the thin Martian atmosphere for a picture-perfect landing.
Because engineers carefully imagined during planning the worst-case scenarios, all systems worked without a hitch. Right after Curiosity's 127 million-mile journey ended, it began to beam back grainy black-and-white photos to confirm it was on the ground in one piece.
Over the next several weeks, NASA scientists will send Curiosity commands to bring its high-tech systems on line. Once everything checks out, the robot will be operational and begin its two-year mission of exploration. It will look for evidence of carbon-based compounds in the sedimentary record, measure radiation, and do on-board experiments.
Dropping Curiosity in terrain believed to have once held flowing water makes sense. If there was ever life on Mars, traces of it are likely to be found there.
President Obama hailed the successful landing and complimented NASA on its ingenuity and determination. But the space agency needs more than praise; it needs the support of taxpayers who are willing to underwrite the next round of planetary missions.
At a time when every element of the federal budget is scrutinized, a short-sighted decision to cut funding for a relatively inexpensive mission like Curiosity would be a disaster. Sending robots to other planets is the next best thing to going ourselves.