NASA’s mission to Mars, putting the Curiosity rover on the surface of the red planet, is another great scientific step forward for a species that has exploration in its genes.  Seeing the celebration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last night — with scientists and engineers who have worked on this project for years hugging, fist-pumping, and high-fiving — was wonderful to watch with my daughter.  It wasn’t as exciting as that July night in 1969 when my parents and I watched Armstrong and Aldrin first set foot on the moon, yet it’s still a great achievement and the joy was contagious.  Perhaps in her lifetime, she’ll witness humans setting foot on Martian soil.  Of course, if she’s watching NBC, she won’t see it until primetime.

The Curiosity mission is easier to explain than this summer’s other major scientific break-through, the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle.  That one’s too complex and sub-atomic to summarize in a single sentence, but this one is easier: “we lowered a big car onto the surface of Mars, and it’s going to drive around looking for signs of life.”  The search may take a long time, like trying to finding a moderate in the Republican caucus.

I was happy to note that the demographics of mission control have changed dramatically, from the all-white men’s club that was the NASA of my youth to the still-mostly-white-but-not-entirely crew of men and women working towards the common goal of landing Curiosity exactly where they wanted it, some 160 million miles away.  In a nation with too many people who believe in nonsense and denigrate science, it’s good to see that we can still reach for the stars — or at least the planets.

To those who think that NASA is a waste of money, that going to Mars and expanding the field of human knowledge isn’t worth it during an economic downturn, here’s a helpful perspective from Adam Mann:

The rover was subject to delays and cost overruns, eventually coming in at a total cost of $2.5 billion. During the press conference, NASA officials pointed out that this amounts to roughly $7 per U.S. citizen. “This whole enterprise comes out to be the cost of a movie,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission, “And that’s a movie I want to see.”

Me, too.

Updated 12:38pm…Here are some of the women on the JPL Curiosity team.