After a 300-million-mile road trip, NASA’s Mars rover, the Perseverance, landed on the “Red Planet,” ready to start its mission in “search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars.” The monumental, other-worldly events of this past Thursday, are in keeping with a great American tradition of intrepid adventuring, usually in the service of future human settlement.
The Perseverance operates like an off-road science lab, gathering, analyzing, and sending back signs of life to us at home. The question in the back of everyone’s mind is whether or not human life could one day inhabit the planet. (This same question, incidentally is animates some of the other missions—notably from the United Arab Emirates, China and Europe — in current orbit around Mars.)
But America is on the red clay surface, just has it had been on earlier missions with Sojourner (1997). The Spirit and Opportunity (2004) and The Curiosity (2012). In a few months, China will attempt its own landing on another part of the planet. In this respect, events out in the solar system resemble the proceedings here on Earth.
As disconnected as life on Mars feels to the denizens of Earth, the blue planet, in abstract what the drive to explore represents is vitality of spirit. When Americans travelled West, fending off the slings and arrows of warlike Indians, harsh terrain, sickness and disease, and unpredictable elements, they endured because of a life-affirming spirit, pressing them forward each day. This spirit is why we push ourselves to travel further and see deeper.
But this vitality, for all our recent NASA success, is in short supply these days. Much of the blame should be laid at the feet of our political and media class, whose bread and butter is fixating Americans on issues that divide rather than unite. Unlike previous generations of Americans who were fixated on the Apollo missions, news of the Perseverance had a hard time competing for space in the public imagination. Too much of America is more worried about keeping preferred pronouns straight and keeping on the right side of the identity politics police.
It’s enough to make one feel a little like that Mars rover up there: alone, bumbling along, trying to keep all the sensors on. But like our robot friend, if all good Americans stay true to their animating mission, defend life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, things on Earth will work out just fine.