Early Monday morning, the 33-year-old version of me watched live as NASA engineers cheered, hugged and patted each other on the back. The Curiosity rover had landed safely on Mars and I was awake at close to 2am on a weeknight—two things that don’t happen very often.
As Curiosity was descending, a phenomenal event took place: One spacecraft snapped a photo of another spacecraft as it hurtled toward the surface of a far-away planet. The amazing image (shown above) is remarkably clear given what had to be done to capture it.
Here’s a stop-motion video of Curiosity’s landing, too, which is also amazing:
Working in the technology industry is the best and worst thing you can do if you love technology. The positives far outweigh the negatives, in my opinion, but there’s no denying that once you’ve seen how the sausage is made–over and over and over again—the stuff you used to get excited about doesn’t really give you the same rush it once did.
New laptops? Awesome. There will be new laptops in a few months, though. And then new ones a few months after that. Same goes for tablets and phones and almost everything else. Incremental upgrades, planned obsolescence and overuse of the word “revolutionary” are all par for the course, and they’re all things I never used to notice when I was just a guy who loved gadgets.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love gadgets. And I’m fully aware that the 14-year-old version of myself—had he known that he’d grow up to have a job where he played with gadgets for a living—would kick 33-year-old Doug two feet north of the shins if he knew I’d ever complain about it.
But I remember (fondly) staying up all night back in November of 2006 trying to order the Wii online from somewhere—anywhere—that had them in stock. When that failed, I drove from store to store to store on zero sleep looking for one. I didn’t end up getting my hands on one until a few weeks later, and I paid $500 for it, but the thrill of the chase was the best part anyway.
I remember buying my first phone that had a color screen and MIDI ringtones; I remember building my first computer; I remember buying my first laptop because it broke the $1,000 barrier and I could use it to play EverQuest; I remember the rush of adrenaline I felt when the 28.8k modem I’d bought using my Best Buy employee discount first connected to Prodigy; I remember how incredible the Ski or Die intro music sounded after I’d successfully installed a Sound Blaster card in my IBM PC/AT when I was in middle school.
In 2000, as a junior in college, I remember ordering the first portable CD player that could read discs with MP3 files burned onto them, and how I jolted out of bed as the UPS guy rang the doorbell at 7:30 on the Friday morning it arrived. I had already burned a CD with 150 songs on it and, if memory serves, I sensed that the UPS guy was about to touch the doorbell before he actually touched it. Never in my life had I received such an important delivery.
Later that same night, a heinous crime was committed at 3305 North 7th Street—just a few short blocks from the idyllic setting of higher education known as the University of Puget Sound: someone stole my MP3 CD player. I cried hysterically, thanks to a combination of heartbreak and liquor and beer and more heartbreak. The police came, dusted for prints and had trouble understanding that not just any portable CD player had been stolen—a CD player that could play CDs that held 150 songs had been stolen. That I was drunk and blubbering didn’t help either.
I re-ordered and re-waited and re-jumped out of bed a second time and haven’t let the replacement out of my sight since. Here it is in its dusty box.
It sits on my shelf as a reminder of how technology can affect people and that, in retrospect, I shouldn’t cry about stolen gadgets. They’re just things, after all, and I have a wife and a dog now. But silly as it seems, this is one of my most prized possessions. I’ll never get rid of it.
Anyway, the point is that Sunday night into early Monday morning was an incredible window of time for technology. I don’t know about you, but I felt the same rush I used to feel when everything about technology seemed new and exciting no matter if it was actually new or exciting. Except this wasn’t about some dumb trinket I’d purchased for myself—this was about something much, much bigger.
The Curiosity rover is sending back beautiful images from a place so far away that you and I might never see it in our lifetimes no matter how much money we make or how badly we want to experience it in person. It’s working on sending back detailed videos, too.
And another NASA spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, snapped a photo of Curiosity with its parachute out as it hurtled down toward the surface of Mars—where it then stepped through a mind-boggling sequence of events that had to be executed perfectly for it to have a meaningful chance at survival.
Had the photo been snapped a second earlier or later “we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” says NASA’s Sarah Milkovich. What’s more, the rover itself captured 297 images of its descent, which have been strung together into a stop-motion video. Unreal.
So forgive yourself if you love technology and you got a little misty-eyed while watching the team at NASA erupt with joy as they learned the rover had safely landed. I know I have.