(Feb. 17) The expected Feb. 18 Mars landing of the rover Perseverance is a really big deal.

As I wrote last summer, we should all be full of wonder and gratitude for this mission, which is the very first one designed to collect soil samples and perhaps evidence of Martian life, not just by remote, but for transport back to Earth. This is astonishing stuff.

Thursday’s touchdown is immensely complicated. Reuters calls it a “daredevil landing,” and NASA calls it “seven minutes of terror” because the landing itself will take place amid an 11-minute lag time in radio transmission, during which NASA can’t concurrently fine-tune the descent. Even if it succeeds and then is followed by a perfectly executed mission and good fortune for months afterward, the materials collected won’t make it back to Earth until 2031.

That very delay gives evidence of two realities perhaps too little appreciated by Americans besotted on Star Wars fantasies. First, it demonstrates just how difficult this all is and just how far away mankind is from actually visiting Mars in person. If it will take another 10 years just to return small amounts of Martian soil to Earth, imagine the technological advancements that will be necessary to land men on Mars, keep them alive, and then return them safely.

Alas, in this culture of addiction to instant gratification, the lengthy timelines and lack of publicly spectacular immediate “payoff” make it difficult to maintain popular support for NASA’s Mars missions. Each new advance earns a few days of moderate “buzz,” but the public’s interest quickly wanes. And when interest wanes, support is even harder to inculcate.

That is a shame.

Laymen (myself definitely included) have little understanding of all the scientific advances made possible by these missions to Mars, even as we can conceptually applaud any significant contribution to the sum of human knowledge….

[Read the rest of this column at this link.]


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