Mars and More

Mazel tov to all of us! NASA has landed a new probe on Mars! It’s not the first; there have actually been a few. But this one, the Perseverance, is incredibly exciting due to its advanced technological capability. It’ll drive around the planet for 2 years, taking photos and measurements. It will also release the Ingenuity, a small 4lb helicopter drone, that will fly around the surface of the planet, traveling greater distance than the Perseverance can reach. The flight of the Ingenuity will be the first-time humans have achieved flight on another planet. Amazing.

The many tasks for the Perseverance include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

The Perseverance will also drill down for regolith samples that will be remotely picked up and brought back to Earth in 10 years. Finally, scientists will have the opportunity to find evidence that once there was life on Mars, organic matter of some sort. It is an extraordinary time for interplanetary exploration and knowledge.

What might it feel like to be the first humans examining Martian regolith? And perhaps the first humans to see actual incontrovertible proof that once there was life on Mars? It would be the start of a new era, and we’d never look up into the nighttime sky in quite the way we had before Perseverance.

When I read the way engineers have planned to get those samples back to Earth, and how long it would take to get them, I paused. Ten years… That’s a long time. And I want to be around to read about it, to see the photos, to listen to the scientists describe it.

Along with my hope to be in good health ten years from now, I also have a concern. In ten years, what will the world look like?  What kind of shape will our nation be in?  Will people care about these samples being fetched across space from almost 130 million miles ?

It could go so wrong. With so many in America still proclaiming lies about the recent presidential election, and so many held in thrall by dangerous, hate-inspired conspiracies, our nation could become a land covered in darkness by the eclipse of reason and strangled by white supremacy. This is not some idle anxiety. We all have more than enough proof to genuinely worry for the future of the United States as a freedom loving democracy, comprised of so many races and religions and points of origin.

One of the images that stubbornly sticks in my mind from the insurrection is a rioter, wearing a MAGA hat, beating a police officer with a flagpole; American flag still attached. It was such a devastating incident to witness. It was as if this criminal was desperately beating a cop to somehow beat back the truth of an America he could not countenance. His violence mirrored the sorriest part of the American story that has always been diverted from our eyes: that some white Americans are threatened by the other: Black, Brown, Jewish, Hispanic, LGBT, and so on. And when threatened, they will resort to violence and exclusion, whether by burning a cross, lynching a Black man, enacting Jim Crow laws, etching a swastika on a wall, passing anti-LGBT legislation, blocking American citizens from their right to vote… and so on…

There is, however, a counter-image. It’s from the Perseverance landing. This is not a reference to the first photo from Mars, though that was very cool. No. The counter-image is the photo taken of Mission Control personnel when they received the signal confirming the Perseverance had landed safely.

Remember all the movies and tv shows about space, and how Mission Control was always filled with white guys in white short-sleeve shirts, most of them smoking Camel straights? And remember actual Mission Control videos, and how they were, in fact, white guys in white shirts smoking Camel straights? Mission Control for the Perseverance was another picture altogether. No one was smoking. There were no white shirts, just blue polos.

The counter-image: even with their masks on, it was easy to discern that the room was filled with men and women. They were White and Black and Brown. They were Asian and South Asian. And they were cheering for and with each other.  People from six different continents collaborated, transcending the limitations of language and the infinitude of space.

What would it take for our nation to pin that picture to the bulletin board of our hearts? What would happen if we chose that achievement of communication and cooperation over the execrable acts of destruction and desecration?

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