MAVEN is on its way! Although it was touch and go with the weather as the start of the launch window approached, the Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's next Mars explorer blasted off exactly on time. The sky was cloudy but calm at 1:28 PM EST as the spacecraft hurtled towards space to the cheers of the thousands of supporters with whom I watched.
We'll have more coverage of the mission in the coming days (once I get real internet access again!), but watching today's launch made me think about human achievement in broader terms. While today's events were by no means routine, they are a far cry from the world-gripping spectacles of the past. And even though rocket launches may never truly become mundane, many of the technologies that make them possible certainly have.
It was barely 50 years ago that early Atlas rockets carried some of America's first astronauts to orbit. Now we have all but perfected the design. Today's launch marked the 41st successful Atlas V launch in 41 tries. And, it was only 115 years ago that James Dewar first liquified hydrogen at the culmination of a multinational race to chill the lightest element. Now we can pump tons of the stuff into a rocket even on a hot Florida day.
MAVEN, like all modern space exploration, is built upon thousands of these breakthroughs. Our progress has reduced once Herculean accomplishments to mere steps on a checklist. It's exciting to think that one day those things which challenge us now will seem but single cogs in the ever-expanding infrastructure of our exploration.