At first it looked like a meteor–a bright light streaking through the thin Martian atmosphere. However, it did something no meteor does as it neared the planet's surface. Once its speed low enough, this light in the sky deployed the largest supersonic parachute ever made by the hands of mankind. This was no meteor, it was a spacecraft. And it was landing.
The spacecrafts speed was still much too fast for a safe landing, so it ejected from it's interplanetary shell and activated rocket boosters. Once it was very near to the surface, it lowered a 1 ton, six-wheeled nuclear-powered rover to the surface via tethers at a gentle 1.5 miles per hour. Once this cargo was delivered. the tethers were cut and the rocket platform careened away to avoid damage to the rover.
Curiosity has landed.
NASA invested $2.5 billion dollars in this straight-our-of-science-fiction mission. That's a lot of money, but it pales compared to the cost of putting on the Olympics or funding a single day of military conflict on foreign soil. This mission is the kind of work that is only feasible for governments to do. We're talking about basic research here--the profit motive can't look out long term enough to project an ROI on interplanetary exploration.
Yes this research is absolutely vital. Understanding why Mars is like Mars, or Venus like Venus can help us make sure Earth stays like Earth. Mars seems to have been temperate at one time, with oceans, rivers and lakes. Today it is a frozen desert. What happened? Curiosity is likely to give us insights that would otherwise elude us.
It will be a few weeks before the really interesting images start to appear. NASA has to go through and startup and test all the subsystems that make up the Mars Science Lab. Her mast must be raised before we can get beautiful high resolution photography. Before too long she'll be firing a high powered laser at rocks to learn about their make up. She'll collect samples and perform chemical analysis. She'll tell us what kind of radiation she encountered during landing–a critical bit of information if humans are ever destined to set foot on the Red Planet. With her nuclear power supply, Curiousity can operate at night and during the Martian winter. Her two year primary mission could potentially expand to decades.
The process of getting Curiosity has advanced the frontier of engineering. The space program not only tells us about who we are and where we fit in the Universe. It also inspires, grows and develops the kinds of people that fuel our economy, our military and our way of life.
I think $2.5 billion was a bargain.