11/28/2011 03:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

A Sublime and Ridiculous Day: Mars Mission and AfPak Debacle

This Thanksgiving weekend saw the greatness of America and the failings of America both on dramatic display. On Saturday we simultaneously reached for the heavens and got further stuck in the mud.

First, very early in the day in the nebulous Afghan-Pakistan border region, NATO air strikes hit two Pakistani Army outposts, creating a severe crisis in the ill-fated Afghan War. Later on, halfway round the world on a bright Florida morning, the most ambitious mission yet to explore another planet lifted off on a nine-month flight to Mars.

The fallout to the attack on the Pakistani outposts is very intense. Some 25 Pakistani troops were killed in the incident and, well over a day later, no clear explanation had been offered.

The world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer is on its way to Mars. NASA on Saturday launched the six-wheeled, one-armed robotic roving science lab Curiosity, largely developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Late on Saturday night, the State Department and the Defense Department sent out this joint statement to their press release list:

Secretaries Clinton and Panetta have been closely monitoring reports of the cross-border incident in Pakistan today. Both offer their deepest condolences for the loss of life and support fully NATO's intention to investigate immediately.

Secretary Clinton, Gen. Dempsey and Gen. Allen each called their Pakistani counterparts as well. Ambassador Munter also met with Pakistani government officials in Islamabad. In their contacts, these US diplomatic and military leaders each stressed -- in addition to their sympathies and a commitment to review the circumstances of the incident -- the importance of the US-Pakistani partnership, which serves the mutual interests of our people.

All these leaders pledged to remain in close contact with their Pakistani counterparts going forward as we work through this challenging time.

As you can tell, there is neither explanation nor justification in that statement. There is no mention of Al Qaeda, the reason we went into Afghanistan in the first place, which has long since been dispersed.

This is a a full-fledged AfPak disaster.

First, Pakistan halted all transport of supplies and fuel for US and NATO forces moving through its territory. As much as half of the materiel for the landlocked Afghan War flows through Pakistan.

Then, later on Saturday, Pakistan ordered the US out of Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan. This is where much of the US drone strike operation is serviced and coordinated.

While US and NATO forces have ample supplies for now, if the breach continues things could become very problematic. After earlier stoppages of shipments through Pakistan (through which 80% of supplies once passed), the US prevailed upon Russia to open up supply lines through Central Asian former Soviet republics.

But US relations with Russia have very lately taken a very frosty turn, with Moscow very upset about heightened moves to create a missile shield, ostensibly to guard against Iran, but not to include Russia as a partner.

It's no secret that Pakistan is a highly problematic ally, and has been all along. The Bush/Cheney Administration looked the other way as the Musharaff regime happily took our billions while allowing jihadists free reign in the frontier territories.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) helped create the Afghan Taliban in the mid-'90s when the mujahideen, locked in civil war after the US-aided defeat of the Red Army helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union, had Afghanistan in chaos.

Pakistan has retaliated for the deadly air strikes against its border posts on Saturday by shutting off supply and fuel shipments for the Afghan War and closing down a CIA drone base.

This is how America falls deeper into the murk. But at the same time it can reach for a bright future.

The most ambitious extraterrestrial exploration yet is now on its nine-month journey to the Red Planet, long a subject of our fascination. Having been successfully launched by the Kennedy Space Center, the Mars mission is now under the control of the Jet Propulsion Lab in LA, which runs the Deep Space Network.

The new Mars rover, now the Mars Science Laboratory dubbed Curiosity, has a specific mission: To search for clues as to whether Mars has had, or still has, environments favorable for life.

This rover, far larger than previous Mars rovers which have puttered cutely about the surface, is the size of a compact car at some 2,000-pounds (900-kilograms).

When Curiosity arrives on Mars next summer, it will be lowered to the surface of the planet by robotic machinery dubbed a sky crane. The previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity, much smaller, were released to the surface in airbags.

The sky crane is to detach from the larger spacecraft after it enters Mars atmosphere about a mile from the planet's surface, firing retrorockets to bring the rover to a gentle landing.

Then it will undertake its planned mission of two years duration, the equivalent of one Mars year. Curiosity will range up and down slopes, performing exploration and experimentation, including some shallow drilling into the Martian surface, and use onboard instrumentation to examine the take.

The mobile Mars Science Laboratory includes a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and a laser spectrometer. These will be used to look for elements associated with life as we know it, such as oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and organic compounds containing carbon. And it has other instruments such as a neutron spectrometer and a telescope to look for signs of ice and water, along with its own weather station and a radiation assessment detector to aid in future planning for human exploration.

Curiosity is launching not quite three weeks since the fourth consecutive failure of a Russian Mars mission.

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is NASA's most ambitious mission yet to discover if life ever existed on the Red Planet. The rover lands next August and will spend two years studying the planet.

China is in the midst of getting into space in a big way, with it own space station in the works for the next decade. But the US, which already shares the International Space Station with Russian, European, and Japanese partners, is moving at President Barack Obama's direction in the post-space shuttle era toward a manned mission to the asteroid belt followed by a manned mission to Mars.

As engaging and intriguing as the previous Mars rover missions have been, Curiosity is by far the biggest yet, and carries the prospect of telling us a great deal about not only Mars, but the possibilities of life in the universe.

Two major events, both quite possibly historic, on the same day. Which direction will be the more powerful?

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