Curiosity’s triumph on Mars underscores the need for bold risk-taking

A joyful NASA team celebrates a successful and historic landing on Mars.[/caption]

It’s rare that humanity lands on another planet.  Yesterday, as a guest of JPL director Charles Elachi, along with a long list of space luminaries such as Jeff Bezos, Dennis Tito, Steve Jurvetson, George Whitesides, Buzz Aldrin, and hundreds more, I made my pilgrimage to Pasadena to be present for what the media called “seven minutes of terror.” That was the final descent of JPL’s Curiosity lander through the thin Martian atmosphere, as it slowed from 13,000 miles per hour to 1 mph while executing a long list of complicated maneuvers.

Historically, only 33% of Mars lander missions have succeeded, and this landing was particularly complicated. It was no wonder, then, that stress was high and many were predicting the potential for a big crash.  But NASA’s boldness paid off: the rover Curiosity, a 1 ton, 6-wheeled robot, successfully landed on the surface of Mars exactly as planned at 10:31pm Pacific time.

Charlie Bolden, the Administrator of NASA aptly said, “This isn’t JPL’s rover, or NASA’s rover, it America’s Rover. In this moment, we should all be very proud.”

Many considered this mission way too risky; its landing configuration was crazy in its complexity.  That’s to be expected since the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea. What the success of Curiosity highlights is the importance of our being bold and audacious. It takes big risks to drive breakthroughs. Financial risks, technical risks, and — when it comes to funding billion dollar programs — political risks. Apollo was one of the great risks this country took that paid off gloriously, allowing humanity to make its first step on another world.

How unfortunate it is when America, itself one of the riskiest ventures in history, fails to take such risks. The United States had an opportunity to build the Supercollider, which would have been larger than the Large Hadron Collider which recently unlocked the Higgs Boson. Who knows what mysteries of the universe could have been discovered? Instead, billions were spent for a project that was never completed.

I spend much of my time as executive chairman of Singularity University and as CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation.  At SU we teach attending graduate students and executives about exponentially growing technology. More importantly, we speak about the importance of taking risk to create breakthroughs and the importance of failing early and failing often — the Silicon Valley formulation for innovation.

Today there’s a new generation of young commercial space companies entering on the horizon that may someday push the frontiers of science.  But for now, and the next couple of decades, spending the billions required to explore Mars, search for life on Europa, and develop cutting-edge science hardware like the Webb Telescope is exactly where our government (and others) must be focusing.  Ultimately taking such risks is the province of government.

The role of government is not accomplishing “sure things,” it’s in taking risks that the private sector simply can’t. If government missions aren’t failing on occasion, it probably means that they’re not pushing the envelope hard enough. We need these bold ventures to inspire the next generation to pursue science and technology. No amount of STEM education funding could accomplish what the Apollo program did in terms of inspiring an entire generation with the wonder of technology.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s definitely worth mentioning the efforts of numerous private companies backed by risking taking investors, enabled by exponentially-growing technologies.  Companies like SpaceX, the many Google Lunar X PRIZE teams (building rovers to land on the surface of the Moon in pursuit of a $30M purse), Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Sierra Nevada Corporation, as well as my own recently announced company Planetary Resources (which I co-founded with Eric Anderson to focus on mining near-Earth asteroids). All of these companies are reaching for the stars with great energy.

That said, none of these efforts would exist today had it not been for the past 50-years of NASA efforts. As long as the government is willing to take the risks involved in big, bold ventures, they’ll pave the way for the private sector to make space available to everyone. It’s tempting, during times of economic troubles, to turn inward and away from risky ventures. But it’s only through boldness and audacity that we can be inspired to innovate and ultimately to succeed.

Tonight as Dr. Elachi came to visit the group I was with at JPL, he quoted President Teddy Roosevelt in a fashion that underscores this point, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure.”

Peter Diamandis is the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation and the co-founder and chairman of Singularity University.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech