Tonight in Times Square, no less than a thousand people stood with the relatively monotonous din of the New York City streets around them, peering at a video monitor high above. As the sticky August night drew to a close and early morning arrived, the crowd swelled, and anticipation built: everyone was here to witness the fate of the Curiosity Mars rover.
It was a somewhat eerie scene, with everyone staring up at the monitor and listening intently to the radio feed over their smartphones. The footage itself — or lack thereof — was the same as what anyone could have watched at home, but for the people who ventured their way out this evening, they wanted to experience this moment as a group.
Each time Mission Control released an update informing the Times Square crowd that the rover had entered the atmosphere, or that the parachute had been deployed, cheers roared out. Each step closer to a successful landing increased the intensity. For those walking down the street unaware of the events unfolding before them, it must have seemed odd. What was everyone cheering for?
"Science! Science! Science!"
Then the largest roar of all broke out, as everyone heard confirmation that Curiosity was safely on the Martian surface. Cheers of "NASA — NASA — NASA" and "Science! Science! Science!" broke out. It was an intensely emotional release: NASA knew the risks, and, so it seemed, did the crowd.
If one thing is clear, it's that the landing inspired those who stood in the red glare of Times Square this evening — and likely those around the country. Everyone cared about those six wheels touching down on Mars, 154 million miles away.
"Advances in a space frontier reset what it is for a nation to dream again. And when you dream about a future that you can enable with science and technology, then an innovation culture takes root in your nation. And when you are part of an innovation culture, what you innovate becomes tomorrow's economies."
The United States may not be sending men and women to the beyond in space shuttles any more, but Times Square tonight proved that this country can still dream. And it's not just techies and space geeks who came out: people of all backgrounds were drawn to follow the landing. It's been debated whether projects like this lead to an "innovation culture" as deGrasse Tyson says, but at the very least, tonight's onlookers all shared a similar sentiment of appreciation for NASA's efforts. As a woman next to me said after the events came to a close: "This was such a great idea. I'm so glad we came."