On Sunday we landed a spacecraft on Mars. After a trip covering 422 million miles and lasting for over ten months, the unmanned but extremely high tech payload known as “Phoenix” touched down safely on the Martian landscape precisely where our scientists desired.
Though the press essentially ignored it, this was a huge accomplishment. One would think that an American technological achievement of this magnitude would be seized upon by both the sitting administration in Washington and by all those now running to replace it.
The winning football team in the Super Bowl gets a call from the President and a trip to the White House. The television ratings are high and are properly acknowledged. This Flight of the Phoenix and its amazing ability to decelerate from 12,000 mph to less than 5 mph while landing softly was viewed by many (and mostly on specialty channels) but the buck stopped there. It was not made into anything like the Super Bowl: not even a nod to great American engineering skill. But it was a much bigger event than any football contest could be and it does indeed reinforce our claim to American ingenuity.
If ever an event should have been trumpeted, this was ready made to be it. When I was growing up, the best estimates for a trip to Mars, which was viewed as far-fetched to begin with, were measured in dozens of years and certainly not in less than one year, which has now been achieved.
The landing method itself was an innovation. This time, we used retro-rockets that act like brakes as the craft approached the rugged Martian terrain (earlier Mars landings used crash padding and parachutes). And we have not landed anything on Mars since 1976 when the twin Mars rovers went into service exploring the equatorial plains. Unlike the rovers, Phoenix is designed to stay in one spot while digging trenches to see if water can be found and to analyze the soil. Scientists have speculated — based on analyzing the existing data and viewing countless photographs — that there is ice buried quite near the surface where they have now placed the Phoenix.
In 1999, things weren’t so pleasant. The Mars Polar Lander somehow shut off its own engines too soon and crashed into the polar area in a landing that ruined the payload and thus the entire half billion dollar mission. But just nine years later and NASA is back and back in a big way. Now that is a story of America that one would want to be a part of…you would think. But Hillary Clinton has not seized on it, nor has Barack, nor McCain, nor even Dick Cheney or President Bush.
Has America grown this jaded that our space program no longer excites us very much? Do we have to have a manned mission before anyone gets really interested? Maybe the answer is yes to both questions. So be it, but it would seem obvious that this story is in the “no-lose” category, especially spun from the angle of our great American well of intelligence and the fact that it is very much as a result of our liberties that we have been allowed the luxury to dream big dreams and carry through on what is often seen as the impossible.
It was after all just over a hundred years ago that Wilbur and Orville Wright cranked up their first glider-like rides to prove that Man could fly. Now we have Mars in our manned-flight sights and we have proven we can land payloads there relatively quickly with our technological joy stick controllers on Earth combining with on-board computers.
Our American success story needs to be told and heralded often. It should make us feel confident and proud and when we have a truly winning story we should not be afraid to run with it. Yet it seems the world now is so homogenized that a space success must be attributed to the world and not simply to America, no matter that we did it. Additionally, there will be those who claim we should never dream big or worry over the seemingly impossible. They would argue that the money for the space programs would be much better utilized here at home on mundane needs.
But to fail our citizens by refusing to push new boundaries in space would be the same as cutting off the American spirit of hope and the plan of an ever brighter future for us. Self knowledge and self discovery are at the heart of these matters and we must collectively emulate that view in a grand manner. Going to the stars, utilizing the assets of our fellow planets in this solar system to help ourselves would seem to be all about Man’s nature to explore, to grow and to prosper.
The various candidates and the government officials had a chance to frame an argument for the American way by utilizing the accomplishments within the Mars story as a backdrop against which to place our unique culture and its attributes: dreaming the impossible dreams and then acting upon them, turning the dream into reality.
But they passed on the story and the moment has slipped away for the media coverage; American technology deserves more than a blip on the radar screen for its latest extra-terrestrial adventure and should be held in high esteem by all of us. We started at the moon. Now we move to Mars. The steps for Mankind indeed are getting bigger and America continues to lead the way.