The NASA robot won't find life on the red planet, but it's a new light for science.
The question will surely be asked: Why go to Mars with all the problems we have on Earth? The question is relevant and deserves an answer. The Curiosity robot's landing in the Gale crater — a hole close to the neighboring planet's equator, caused by a meteoric impact 3,500 years ago — is first of all an unprecedented technical feat, a masterpiece of human engineering, and therefore the latest in the line of the same venerable tradition that spawned our bridges and railways, the machines that run on them and the energy that fuels them, the same that has illuminated our streets and our homes, that allows us to navigate and fly, the same that invented communications and imagined computers, that transformed medieval society into the interconnected world of free citizens that we try to be.
Going to Mars is not the opposite of helping humanity; it is the same. Cold War-era criticism of space exploits didn't make much sense either. Now no one is trying to win a race against the Russians to plant a flag on a piece of stony extraterrestrial ground. If there's anything that NASA, the ESA and the other space agencies of the world have to fight against now, it's the budget shortages of their own governments. And if the American agency occasionally tends to certain publicity excesses, it isn't to proclaim the superiority of the lineage founded by the Mayflower passengers, but to get money from the capitol.
The Curiosity robot didn't go to the red planet to find life. It won't find it, even if it were treading over it right now with its six wheels, because it is not ready for it. Maybe one day there will be money for that experiment, but now we're in a time of budget cuts, here and on Mars. And no, Curiosity was not planted in the Gale crater to be the cornerstone of a new Martian colony, or to plant transgenic crops that will feed its future inhabitants. But its goals are among the most worthy of those which our species is capable of conceiving: a deeper knowledge of the neighboring planet, its geology and its history, which are also those of our cosmic neighborhood.
Why go to Mars? The name of the robot says it: for curiosity, the real driving force of science.