What should have been a near-impossible feat resulted in wild success: They landed a 1-ton science laboratory on Mars. And this week, NASA is about to try it again.
Admittedly, it’s hard to launch a mission to Mars during a pandemic. It’s not just a challenge logistically — most of the team are still operating from their homes — but also, the state of the world has dampened the excitement that might normally build for such a scientific feat. It has been hard to find even a morsel of joy. Even so, the launch window to get to Mars opens only every two years, and the time has come to go back. On Thursday, one lucky spacecraft will leave this Earth behind.
Before Mars 2020 left Pasadena, Calif., for Florida in February, it spent years being built in NASA JPL’s High Bay 1, a room that has been the source of hope for many thousands of scientists and engineers as long as NASA has been NASA. Some of those hopes were fulfilled once their missions got to space, and others met failure, crashed landings and broken parts.
On Dec. 27, 2019, NASA let a couple dozen journalists into High Bay 1 to see the rover. HighBay 1 is legendary — both Voyagers were built there, as well as Cassini, which orbited Saturn for 13 years; the Curiosity rover, which is on Mars; and the Jupiter orbiter, Galileo, to name a few. The list is long and impressive. This room has been witness to the birth of dozens of spacecraft. Because there are missions built there that are meant to search for life elsewhere, the clean room and its glossy, white floors meet some of the highest standards on the planet. Before we were allowed anywhere near the front door, we had to spend an hour getting air-showered and putting special “bunny” suits on to protect the rover from our germs.
It was a scene we are more familiar with now: Every person had a mask on. All covered up, only our eyes could convey the sheer awe of standing just feet away from the rover. Its giant camera eye stared vaguely out into the room, blissfully unaware of the violent and dangerous seven months it faced. The rover is a work of art as much as a feat of engineering, down to the precision of how the wires hug each curve of circuit boards and heat blankets: This was a rare time when designing for function over form still results in something beautiful. I stood in disbelief that I was just feet away from something that a year later would be (I hoped) driving on the surface of Mars. Everyone in the room was silent with awe and excitement; I think we all waffled between quiet tears and concealing squeals of joy. Standing in High Bay 1 that day meant that I was one of the last people on Earth to see that rover — and one of the few ever to see it at all.
The mission has lofty goals built on decades of predecessors. The team hopes to continue to understand Martian geology and learn more about how the planet formed, but their main goal is pursuing the question of whether Mars once had life. If they can figure this out either way, it will have great implications for how we view humanity. We will either grow to feel even more special as rare as we are, or perhaps view ourselves as just one element of a complex tapestry of possible life in the cosmos.
Meanwhile, as the launch approaches, the people who’ve dedicated their days and years to this moment are all at home, like the rest of us. No one wishes to watch their life’s work leave this planet during a pandemic, but the alignment between Mars and Earth means we have a shot every two years. It is 2020s turn. And so, pandemic or not, some things have to move forward.
“The work we have to do here on Earth to combat injustice, racism, poverty, climate change, and so many other ills we have created for ourselves, not to mention covid-19, can feel insurmountable,” says author Sasha Sagan (whose father, the late Carl Sagan, did so much to engage people’s imagination with space). “Maybe a mission like this can remind us of what we are capable of accomplishing, and how quickly we can go from imagining something seemingly impossible to making it real. And it has the added benefit of creating enthusiasm for science and reminding us that we humans are in it together on a very small world in a vast universe.”
So much of our lives is on hold right now, but that does not mean progress can’t be made and that we can’t try to find the wonder in one act of human effort. When we are collectively mourning and existing in a constant state of despair and loneliness, something like this can bring us all together in a different way — a way that gives us some much-needed hope.
After launching, the rover will travel for seven months before it officially begins its mission. I wonder what the world will look like when it arrives. Will it be healthier? Will we be more at peace? There is so much unknown. We don’t even know whether the rover will survive its descent onto Mars; we have to wait to find out.
While we are all locked in this dark place, maybe things like this collective attempt is just one small way to make this time apart more bearable.
Just a few months ago, before the chaos of the pandemic completely took over, NASA was gathering the results of the competition to name Mars 2020 something real. You can’t go to another planet without a name. The Mars Science Laboratory became Curiosity, set out to explore Gale Crater and help scientists determine how habitable that area might be. Its successor has a much different job, to help us determine whether life might have been on Mars or if it is there today. For months, I looked at the list wondering which name would win, what would we choose to embody this mission.
Finally, on March 5, NASA announced they had officially picked a name for their rover, just a few weeks before we all realized how apt the name really was: It’s called Perseverance.