NASA’s latest triumphant landing of a spacecraft on Mars should inspire us to reinvigorate our own capacity for wonder.
While many national outlets dutifully covered Monday’s landing of InSight lander (and this publication provided wonderful live coverage), I still don’t get the sense that the general public is excited, or even more than mildly interested, by it. This is, after all, the eighth successful landing of a human craft on the Martian surface, so the novelty long ago wore off.
It’s tough for most of us to keep track of which lander is doing which science, or why anything other than the search for water/life/little green men should much concern us. If the lander is just going to dig into the earth rather than send some R2-D2-like robot scampering across the Martian dunes, it just doesn’t hold our interest — even if we allow ourselves an all-too-momentary pride as Americans and humans to know that we can perform such feats of engineering.
Yet perhaps we ought to be not so blase about it. What mankind is achieving on Mars is truly remarkable. Three-fifths of Mars missions have failed entirely, and more still have been only partial successes. And no wonder: To succeed, InSight had to traverse 301,223,981 miles of space, slow down from 12,300 mph to 5 mph while enduring friction heat of 2,700 degrees, self-analyze where the flattest, safest spot was in the landing zone, deploy a parachute at exactly the right time, rotate to just the correct position in reference to the ground, touch down gently — and then start sending detailed signals back to Earth.
It will take a further three months for NASA scientists, using those same radio signals across deep space, painstakingly to set up the tools and research instruments that will let InSight drill deep below the Martian surface to conduct its experiments on Mars’ inner heat, its degree of “wobble” on its axis, and other information that will help men safely land and survive missions on the Red Planet.
Those vast-distance experiments will run for nearly two Earth years. Other missions are on their way.
Yet despite all this, I fear too many of us don’t appreciate the mind-boggling complexity of these missions, nor the tremendous triumphs the successful ones are. It wasn’t always thus. Back in 1996-97 when the little Sojourner rover became the first-ever human instrument to actually move on and across Martian soil, I remember far more of us being transfixed, talking about it over work lunches and dinner tables, even anthropomorphizing a human personality onto it.
Likewise, or even more so, when the Spirit and Opportunity rovers began far-longer-distance travel across the Martian landscape in 2004 — and then, almost miraculously, kept going and going and going, first months and then years beyond their originally expected 90 days of useful “lives” — we rooted for them as if they were plucky little engines that could, as if they had wills of their own.
While logic says it’s silly to ascribe personalities to machines, it does make sense to transfer those feelings of admiration and awe to the humans who created them. If we lose this capacity for appreciating the grandeur of some human achievements, and the even greater grandeur of this unfathomably large and mysterious universe, we will lose an essential element of our humanity itself.
As the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, at our best we are determined “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” That’s what our NASA scientists and engineers do every day, and they merit our profoundest gratitude.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner, and is the author of “The Accidental Prophet” trilogy of recently published satirical, literary novels.