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Tom Donohue: ‘Curiosity’ Can Help Fuel American Innovation

Mars mission a fresh reminder that the U.S. remains a competitive force

At some point in history, it was memorably declared that “the sky is the limit.” Whoever coined that term didn’t realize just how low a ceiling he was setting for human aspiration. Curiosity, imagination and ingenuity have always gotten the best of perceived physical limits.

This has been especially true in America. We are, by nature, a nation of innovators and pioneers inspired to push through every boundary we confront.

The world recently got a fresh reminder of this when NASA landed an advanced new rover on the surface of Mars. The rover, aptly called Curiosity, is nothing short of a mobile science lab. It is designed to send images and data to scientists to deepen our understanding of Earth’s planetary neighbor, including whether it has ever been able to support life.

The successful mission is one of the most powerful examples yet of how innovations build on one another to create breakthroughs. Think of the collaboration required to transport the one-ton rover through space — a 352 million-mile, nearly nine-month journey capped off by a suspenseful but ultimately successful landing. The feat involved a team of 400 scientists and 300 engineers — world-class experts from across scientific and technological disciplines. Cutting-edge American companies both large and small worked together with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make it happen.

These kinds of cross-disciplinary and private-public collaborations have led to discoveries and applications that have changed life as we know it. Many of the innovations pioneered to support space exploration translate into advancements in health and medicine, manufacturing and consumer goods, transportation and renewable energy.

The Curiosity mission also stands to reignite America’s imagination and whet its appetite for more astonishing feats leading to scientific advancement. Nowhere is that more important than in our schools. We have a great need for technical talent — students and workers with a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math. How better to inspire the next generation of innovators than by showing them exhilarating examples of science in action in the world — or universe — around us?

Moreover, the mission is a signal to the world that the United States remains an innovation leader. While we face challenges in our space program, we are still a competitive force to be reckoned with in the race for knowledge and achievement that pushes beyond our own atmosphere.

And we’re just getting started. We don’t yet know how far the human imagination stretches or where our innovations will take us. But, so far, the cosmos seem to be the limit.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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