Perseverance

Is it socially acceptable for a grown man to shed tears when a rover successfully lands on Mars? Reasonable or not, that is what happened. Since that historic landing, I’ve been probing my own mind to try to understand why I cried. I came up with a few ideas.

First of all, the past 4 years have been very hard on me. I am trained as a scientist, and believe that the scientific method is the best way we have of discovering the truth. And if that belief is a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, then I would give a 9+ to the notion that if one is armed with the truth, one has a much better shot at success in life. For the last 4 years, that whole system seemed upside down. It seemed that anyone with a catchy opinion could post it on social media, and that opinion could compete successfully with the facts brought forth by competent scientists.

Of the last 4 years though, the final one just about did me in. Epidemiologists have long understood how Corona Viruses spread, and how best we can slow and eventually stop the spread in a low-tech way. A simple face mask and social distancing can and does slow virus transmission almost to a stop. For some reason, though, reasonable people saw these two simple solutions as weakness and a threat to their freedom, and as a result many refused to be careful. The result has been the United States, with some of the greatest minds in the world, and unparalleled resources, has had very high transmission and death rates, and a lingering pandemic. It seems the best we can hope for is a quick rollout of vaccine to grant immunity to sufficient numbers of people that the virus’ transmission rate will drop low enough that it will become scarce enough for us to return to normal.

Knowing all this, I’ve felt that a consistent message from our elected leaders could have made a large difference in our transmission and death rates. Unfortunately, the message was, what appeared to me, the opposite of rational. This method of thinking and action is so counterintuitive to me that I constructed a shell to keep out the constant barrage of bad news. I kept a peephole in that shell, hoping for some good news through the avalanche of bad, but even that peephole started to close off.

Then we had the inauguration of a president that believes in science. We had confirmation of people to advise him that are competent in their fields, rather than unconditionally loyal to their boss. The peephole started cracking open.

The Mars rover Perseverance has been planned and under construction for some years. Her launch had to happen during the pandemic, because the alignment of our two planets was favorable for the trip during that time. Had it not been able to launch then, a long delay would have ensued before another window opened. Somehow, with so many things shut down, the launch happened 7 months ago, culminating in a recent successful landing on Mars. The rover package entered the Mars atmosphere at more than 20,000 miles per hour. It’s heat shield endured severe punishment as the little craft sank toward the planet. As it was streaking across the sky, tiny rockets were orienting the craft towards a safe place to land, all the while going slower and slower. At the correct moment, a huge parachute opened which further slowed the decent. Then the chute was cut free and a sky crane fired its rockets and lowered the rover to the surface of Mars on tethers. Once on the ground, the tethers were severed, and the sky crane flew away so as to not damage the rover. Oh yes, since it takes a radio signal several minutes to reach Earth from Mars, and then several more minutes back to Mars from Earth, the system had to do all this autonomously.

When the touchdown happened and word of the success reached JPL, the room erupted in cheers (albeit masked cheers). That was when my shell cracked open and the tears started to flow. Just look what we can do when we trust experts. When we work together. Imagine what we could do?

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