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What the Mars landing tells us about ourselves

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This photo provided by NASA shows the first color image sent by the Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA/JPL-Caltech via Associated Press

The image last week of NASA engineers raising their arms in the air, giddy with excitement at the landing of the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars, was a perfect reminder of the nation’s on-and-off love affair with its space program.

We love it when it reminds us how brilliant minds, working toward a common goal that requires dashes of ingenuity and inventiveness, can accomplish a spectacular goal. We like to think this embodies a unique American can-do spirit, inherited from ancestors who overcame heavy odds to forge new lives.

But euphoria has a short shelf life.

We understand, in the excitement of the moment, how this unity of purpose can transcend whatever problems — political, social or military — that may otherwise be threatening to tear us apart. NASA has good timing that way.

The space program’s grandest achievement, putting men on the moon, happened amid anti-war protests, racial unrest and a Hippie movement that threatened the social order. Mankind’s “giant leap” in Neil Armstrong’s boots had a way of bringing us all back to earth.

Today, the aptly named Perseverance made its landing amid more racial unrest, intense political strife and a global pandemic that has disrupted life for a year. Small wonder that CNN science writer Ashley Strickland began her report of the landing by writing, “We needed this moment.”

But Perseverance didn’t last much more than one news cycle. The landing was Thursday. By Friday, winter weather and devastation in Texas was top of mind again, followed closely by President Joe Biden trying to strengthen relations with Europe and the latest on COVID-19 vaccines.

This was perhaps a rapid-paced reminder that even the moon landings of a half-century ago became less and less interesting to television viewers after Apollo 11. The euphoria lasts about as long as the candles on a birthday cake. And always, questions loom about how much space exploration costs, and what we hope to get from it all. 

So it may help to go back to the beginning and see the progress. The lesson, again and again, is that we tend to limit ourselves by the things we see around us, rather than by what we might imagine.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Americans were devastated. The next day, the New York Times consoled everyone by writing, “Military experts have said that the satellites would have no practicable military application in the foreseeable future. … The satellites could not be used to drop atomic or hydrogen bombs or anything else on the earth, scientists have said. Nor could they be used in connection with the proposed plan for aerial inspection of military forces around the world.”

That was the limit of forward thinking at the time. What good could a rocket do?

In January of 1958, the mood changed. The United States launched its own satellite. Science writer Willy Ley, an exile from Nazi Germany, imagined all sorts of things in a syndicated newspaper piece. Satellites could help predict the weather. We might be able to beam television signals live around the world, he said. 

Elsewhere, newspapers quoted J. F. Harrell, an engineer on the satellite project, who envisioned “practical civilian uses” such as mapping and measurements, which could help astronomers and navigators.

No one, it seemed, could foresee the day when satellites let joggers measure and log runs, or when an average driver could get behind the wheel and have a voice direct him or her, step by step, to a desired location. 

Space exploration may drift in and out of our consciousness like the changing seasons, but it weaves through our daily lives in ways that, to us, seem invisible, but that would make people 64 years ago gape in wonder.

The list of modern conveniences brought to us by space travel ranges from the dust buster to high-resolution camera phones, and includes things such as scratch-proof lenses in glasses, thermal blankets, CAT scans, infrared thermometers that can take your temperature through your ear, highly effective insulation for homes, water purification systems, robotic arm technology for delicate surgeries and fire-proof clothing for firefighters. The study of astronauts aboard the space station has led to better treatments for osteoporosis. 

The list goes on — wireless headphones, memory foam, freeze-dried food… NASA happily lists these on its website.

We notice when a rover lands on Mars and begins sending pictures, or when a probe sends spectacular colored images from Jupiter. But the seldom pondered truth is that, the more space exploration tells us about the cosmos, the more it tells us about ourselves. 

Looking back through 64 years, even earthlings with short attention spans can see there are plenty of reasons to throw our hands in the air and get excited.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the United States launched its first satellite in February of 1958. The launch took place Jan. 31, 1958.