The first and sure-to-be-enduring image of Mars from the Curiosity rover looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic novel. Dusty, mountainous, orange-tinged and deserted.
What the Mars landing means, however, is anything but. It's not about the end of civilization as we know it. It's about a new frontier.
In a statement released Monday, President Barack Obama said words that can be uttered only once: "Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history."
What a proud moment for our nation. Just landing the one-ton, plutonium-fueled rover was exceptional. Now, the scientists and engineers involved in the project, including (just to bring it a little closer to home) Raymond E. Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished Washington University professor, get to use the rover to explore.
Mr. Arvidson, who has been poking around on Mars since 2004 with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, will use Curiosity as an instrument to learn about Martian soils. He and hundreds of others are looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that life may have existed on Mars, or that it could sustain life in the future.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has used the landing to knock back suggestions that the space agency, created with aplomb by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, had gotten old and creaky.
John P. Holdren, the president's science adviser, summed it up this way: "If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, well, there's a one-ton automobile-size piece of American ingenuity. And it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now."
If that statement doesn't kindle a spark of can-do spirit, you've spent too much time listening to the naysayers and demagogues who would have you believe that the hope, promise and spunk of the United States is dead.
All we can say to that is, "Go get 'em, rover."