(July 31) Far too little attention has been afforded the remarkable mission of NASA’s Mars rover, named Perseverance, which successfully was launched July 30 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA’s succession of Mars rovers already has been one of the great triumphs of the Space Age, far exceeding their original missions. Perseverance, though, is designed to extend those triumphs by, well, a whole new dimension. If it is successful, Perseverance will package Martian rock, soil, and maybe even signs of life, for eventual transport back to planet Earth on a future mission.

Read that again. It’s one thing, already a stupendous achievement, to land a craft 60 million miles away and have it conduct scientific experiments we earthlings can monitor. It’s almost a cosmic leap beyond that for actual material from the Martian surface intentionally to be brought to Earth, under controlled conditions, for humans to analyze directly.

In the long run, interplanetary travel that does not allow a safe return to Earth is almost pointless. The key phrase in President John Kennedy’s famous pledge to land a man on the moon within the decade of the 1960s was “returning him safely to the Earth.” Slowly but surely, NASA is advancing that pledge for travel to Mars, and Perseverance is the key first step.

Granted, Perseverance itself will not be involved in the transport of Martian soil back to humankind. Its job merely is to package the material in sterile tubes that can be retrieved by missions to be launched in 2026. One of those missions will land a “fetch rover” and rocket near the tubes prepared by Perseverance and load the material onto a canister on the rocket, to then be relaunched into orbit around Mars. The second mission will send a special vehicle to recapture the canister of Martian soil from orbit, then change course and return towards Earth, where it will drop the canister into the Utah desert.

Scientists at special pathogen-protected labs will then study the rocks from Mars.

Amazing. If the technological daring, complexity, and innovation of this doesn’t stir one’s imagination and inspire at least a little awe, then we’ve lost the essential human capacity for wonder….

[Please read the rest of this column here.]


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