from the inspiring dept
It was hardly more than 100 years ago that human beings figured out powered flight. Barely 80 since flight became jet-powered, 70 since it broke the sound barrier, and 60 since we mastered jet flight sufficiently for ordinary commercial use. It was also not even 60 years ago that we figured out how to send human beings into space, and not even 50 since we put them on the moon. These time periods hardly span geological epochs; they can be measured by a lifetime.
For those whose consciousness developed after these tectonic shifts in the development of human civilization, it can be easy to forget that mankind spent vastly more of its existence not being remotely able to succeed at any of these things than being able to do them all. It can be easy to lose sight of what a triumph each leap is when today they all seem so ordinary. We take it for granted that we can board a metal tube and just a few hours later end up a continent away. We become glib about putting people in space when we have them sitting up there 24/7. And the moon, that celestial body that from the dawn of man has been the object of every dream, has long faded into the rearview mirror. Been there, done that, we think, as the knowledge that it is within our grasp slowly extinguishes the wonder that used to fuel our drive to seek the impossible.
Fortunately space is full of other frontiers to tantalize us. And Mars is one of them. Orbiting our solar system between 35 and 250 million miles away from Earth (depending on our respective orbital positions), barely visible to the naked eye, and full of even more mystery than our much more proximate moon (which is less than 240,000 miles away), it passes through the heavens flashing its enticing red glow like a bullfighter to his charges. And so, like moth to flame, we go.
But it hasn’t been easy. We didn’t get close to Mars until the 1960s, or get any sort of good look until the 1970s. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that we finally got to touch it with tools we created as stand-ins for ourselves. But even as some Mars exploration missions succeeded, most have ended prematurely, or failed altogether. Even though in the intervening twenty years since our first lander we’ve managed to send several more robotic extensions of ourselves, which in turn have sent us back enormous amounts of data teaching us about this place so difficult to know, every time we come up with some new apparatus to help move our still-limited knowledge of Mars forward, we still face the same nearly insurmountable problem: how do we manage to get this highly sophisticated piece of equipment to this incredibly far off place?
Yesterday, we got it right. Yesterday, we threaded this near-impossible needle and successfully landed the InSight Lander exactly where we wanted it. But this perfect arrival obscures what a tremendous accomplishment it represents. As The Oatmeal illustrated earlier this month, there were a zillion possible points of failure that we had to get perfectly right. We had to pick a spot to land. We had to pick a day to launch to hit that spot. We had to pick a place to launch from. We had to calculate where Mars would be by the time it got there. We had to fly it across 300,000,000 miles of space to get there. We had to get it to arrive at the correct 12 degree angle. We had to get it to survive the heat of atmospheric entry. We had to get it to successfully deploy a special “super-sonic parachute” at exactly the right time. We then had to get it to successfully detach from the heat shield, deploy some landing legs, and fall from its protective shell. And then, with the same impeccable timing, we had to get it to fire some retro-rockets to control its continued descent. And we had to perfectly anticipate every instruction for every task in programming baked into our robotic scout months and months before that program would ever be run. Programming error, mechanical error, or any other human error all could have doomed the mission. And yet none did. It has some more to do to prepare for all of its experiments (deploy instruments, etc.) but InSight now stands ready, on Mars, to continue teaching us about our mysterious planetary neighbor.
It is a moment worth celebrating. We spend so much time lamenting technology, often regarding human innovation as some sort of disease to be cured of, that we lose our ability to marvel over just what we’ve accomplished as a species. To see those first pictures beamed back to our home planet today from another elsewhere in the solar system because we figured out how to is like looking at something of unspeakable beauty. Not just in the view itself but in the momentous human achievement we are privileged to see unfold before our eyes.
Filed Under: advancement, innovation, insight, mars, nasa, technology