Mars 2020 is the latest, and in important ways most ambitious, of the space missions of the United States and a growing number of other nations. On Feb. 18, the roving vehicle Perseverance landed on the surface of Mars.
A distinctive feature of the mission is a small robot helicopter, named Ingenuity. The vehicle will deploy from Perseverance to scout promising routes for exploration.
One principal goal of this latest Mars mission is to seek any indications life has existed on the planet. More generally, the work of the rover will help pave the way for a projected human mission to Mars.
This is the first landing on the planet since the robotic vehicle InSight arrived in November 2018. That mission continues to transmit a range of scientific data.
Space missions to Mars have been underway for a half-century. In May 1971, the Soviet Union successfully landed a vehicle on the surface, which transmitted briefly. In November 1971, the U.S. Mariner 9 entered orbit around the planet.
In the summer of 1976, the U.S. Viking 1 and 2 landers touched down on the Mars surface. Other nations undertook Mars missions, including Japan in 1998 and the European Space Agency in 2003.
The U.S. space agency NASA and associated institutions, notably the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have achieved a tremendous triumph. Americans and people generally should take pride in these accomplishments. Today a growing number of nations are involved in space exploration.
In January 2004, President George W. Bush declared distant space flight to be a high national priority, to include a manned mission to Mars. Bush’s low-key, low-profile announcement contrasts sharply with the approach of President John F. Kennedy, during a different time.
Kennedy made a dramatic commitment in early 1961 to carry out a manned mission to the Moon in that decade. That mission succeeded in July 1969, when the Apollo 11’s crew reached the Moon and returned safely to Earth.
Space flight generates far less public excitement than in JFK’s day. Collectively, we are far more cautious. That attitude is well represented by the constant concern over safety of the Space Shuttle flights.
The earlier Moon program was also spurred by and became integral to the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Early Soviet success in space launches during the Eisenhower administration drove the Moon effort.
Exploration of space is inherently unpredictable. Shuttle flights remained relatively close to Earth, yet two crews were lost. The only casualties of the Moon program were one brave crew incinerated on Earth.
There are good reasons for continuing exploring. First, global cooperation is encouraged. Examples include a 2005 joint Russia-United States satellite launch from Kazakhstan. The Soyuz-FG rocket was built by the Soviet Union. U.S. Orbital Sciences Corp. built the two-ton Galaxy 14 satellite.
The International Space Station involves cooperation between Canada, the European Union, Japan, Russia and the U.S.
Frosty Russia-U.S. relations are challenging but still manageable. During the Cold War, President Eisenhower leveraged cooperation with the Soviet Union during the International Geophysical Year into demilitarization of Antarctica.
Second, space exploration advances science and technology. Miniaturization of Moon mission components paid great benefits, including today’s pervasive cell phones.
In short, space exploration nurtures and educates. Benefits range from international cooperation among nations to specific, tangible, helpful devices of life.
Learn more: You can check out the progress of Perseverance at: mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/timeline/landing/watch-online.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and the author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org