NASA scored an unabashed victory Thursday afternoon, landing a new rover on Mars — the first sent to our sister planet by the United States in nine years. A worldwide audience watched, along with mission control staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, during the lander’s “seven minutes of terror” — the time it took for the rover to fall, at a speed of roughly 12,500 miles per hour, through the thin Martian atmosphere, and land safely, thanks to an intricate combination of heat shield, parachute, sky crane and rocket.
Eleven minutes later — the time it takes for information to be relayed through space — the mission control room erupted in high fives and cheers.
“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States and space exploration globally — when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.”
We agree. Every successful landing is a demonstration of American ingenuity, innovation, organization and cooperation, showing the world what can be accomplished by the world’s best planetary scientists, mathematicians, technicians, engineers and administrators — as well as visionaries — working together to reach beyond the bonds of the pale blue dot we call home.
The car-sized rover, named Perseverance, is the most complex piece of machinery ever launched from Earth. It will spend the next few years exploring a section of Jezero Crater, where it seems certain that water once flowed. The floor of the 28-mile-wide crater may still contain evidence of ancient life — a discovery that would change history.
Perseverance will also test methods for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and for finding subsurface water — which may be essential to future manned missions.
In addition, it will drill and store rock samples for future delivery to an orbiting craft that will return the samples to Earth, where more thorough and intuition-driven experiments can be conducted.
Speaking of intuition, NASA realized long ago that its missions should cater to human curiosity, thus Perseverance has been equipped with 18 cameras — and with two microphones, so that we’ll be able to hear what Mars sounds like. Video of the suspenseful landing may be available as soon as now.
One of the first tasks for Perseverance was to send an image back to earthlings, which is reproduced here. It reveals a landscape that is both familiar and strange.
In the midst of earthly woes, with natural disasters, pandemics, poverty, bigotry, violence and wars, some critics will inevitably ask why we should spend tax money on such a fanciful and seemingly impractical flight.
But the $2.7 billion price tag of the entire Mars 2020 mission doesn’t come close to half a percent of a U.S. annual budget. It’s real money, but it’s a drop in the bucket, probably costing each of us pennies apiece. By percentage, it’s a negligible investment.
Beyond that, as often happens with scientific research and discovery, the pure knowledge gained from this mission may have unforeseen practical applications later.
Beyond all of that, a successful mission like this is a matter of national pride and a victory of the human spirit. With all the mundane and discouraging events occurring today, we were still able to achieve something astounding — something inspiring. The credit goes, not to a particular political subset, but to the scientific community, the human intellect and to all of us who thrill to humanity’s accomplishments. We need more NASA missions, not fewer.
Cheers to Perseverance and NASA.