Perhaps mindful of insurance premiums, von Karman helped to arrange the acquisition of a remote testing ground in the Arroyo Seco — the dry creek bed — north of Pasadena’s famous Rose Bowl stadium, at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. And that is why, some 85 years later, if you go to that dry gulch you’ll find the magnificent Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the world’s citadels of science, exploration and advanced manufacturing.
Many of the cheers that erupted when the rover Perseverance settled gently on the surface of Mars the other day were voiced by the people of JPL, the descendants of those dauntless CalTech crackpots. Perseverance is more than a catchy name for this mission; it’s a one-word summation of the JPL culture. Perseverance through the early skepticism about rocket technology; perseverance through the misguided space shuttle decades; perseverance through high-profile failures to arrive at a mission that bristles with confidence and purpose.
Those who watched the rover land on Feb. 18 get the picture. A package full of miracles, launched into space atop an Atlas V rocket last year, finally drew near to the Red Planet and began falling through the thin atmosphere, pulled by weak gravity. Suddenly, a parachute deployed at precisely the right moment and a heat shield fell away, tumbling downward as we watched from many millions of miles away. Closer to the surface, the lander began firing rockets to steer its final descent, until — just above ground — the rover itself deployed on wires like a spider on its silk. Perseverance settled gently, and the lander flew off to die.
The whole sequence was as elegant as it had been inconceivable to less audacious minds.
Now Perseverance is on the move, beginning what promises to be a long career of exploration, prowling a now-parched seabed for signs of long-ago life. The rover carries a drone helicopter on its belly — another miracle to be revealed on another day — as it makes its way over the Martian terrain. Among its tasks is to package up some scientific samples to be collected and returned to Earth by a future mission.
This is JPL’s sweet spot — where starry-eyed imagination meets can-do engineering. JPL has sent Voyager craft into interstellar space; flown a probe that encountered the rings of Saturn; synced up with Venus and Mercury; and snapped close-ups of volcanoes on moons of Jupiter. When NASA lost its way after the glories of the Apollo lunar missions and nearly vanished into the sucking black hole of the space shuttle program, its JPL field center kept the true flame of exploration kindled in Pasadena. The shuttle — too small to be very useful but big enough to absorb virtually every available dollar — was wildly dangerous, by far the deadliest craft in the history of spaceflight. Scientifically, it was a three-decade dud.
Through it all, JPL conceived and designed space probes, observatories and rovers that performed remarkably well, on balance, despite a shoestring budget. While shuttle drivers were fiddling with tomato seeds a few hundred miles from Earth and unloading satellites that could have been boosted into orbit on unmanned rockets at a fraction of the cost, JPL was getting up close and personal with Neptune.
Human spaceflight has always had an edge in sexiness and romance over the tirelessly productive JPL robots. With Perseverance, that gap may be starting to narrow, though. Choosing its own landing spot, guiding itself to that perfect touchdown and immediately snapping a selfie of its own Martian shadow, the automobile-size rover displayed a brand of intelligence amazingly anthropomorphic. And it’s just getting started.
We will unlock the secrets of Mars — not by sending vulnerable human flesh into its desperately harsh and deadly environment, but by sending ever wiser, ever hardier ambassadors designed to be our eyes, ears and hands. And not just Mars, but, as Buzz Lightyear says: to infinity — and beyond. It is a possibility worth dreaming of despite derision, worth working for despite obstacles, through decade after decade along a dry creek bed in Pasadena. And when it comes true in spectacular style, it’s worth all the cheers and tears of joy that a roomful of visionaries and geniuses can muster.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.