As my husband and I watched the landing of Perseverance, NASA’s robotic six-wheeled rover that landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, I thought of my own trips into outer space. I have left our planet not once, but twice.
The first time was with NASA’s Deep Impact Mission to look inside a comet. I was aboard the probe that collided with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005. The second time, a journey I am still on, was aboard the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft headed to the Sun to get a close-up look at our star. We left earth in 2018. On July 11, 2020, we sped around Venus to gain momentum for our closest approach which, if I’m not mistaken, will be in 2025. We’ll be going approximately 430,000 miles per hour—about the same as a one-second trip between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The tickets for these missions were birthday presents from my husband.
I guess you’ve figured out that my body wasn’t on those spacecraft. No. Just my name. On the Impact Mission it was engraved on a compact disc, while on the Parker Solar Probe, a memory card contains it. Nonetheless, I get a chill when I think of a spacecraft with my name on it crashing into a comet or speeding into the Sun’s corona.
Somehow my husband missed the deadline for purchasing a ticket to Mars aboard Perseverance. I envy those nearly 11 million people who reserved a space, and whose names—stenciled on three silicon chips—now sit upon Martian soil in a vehicle designed to collect samples of rocks and regolith and perform experiments that could offer clues about past life on a planet where, once upon a time, rivers flowed. It will also be one step closer to bringing humans to the Red Planet.
“Percy” has unusual cargo—a helicopter. “Ingenuity” weighs only four pounds and clings to the rover’s belly like a marsupial baby. And, like the baby, it will not leave its protective pouch until it has proven its ability to function on its own. For Ingenuity this means weekly battery boosts until its solar panel can take over. The tiny helicopter carries no science instruments. Its only task is to get off the ground—not easy in Mars’ thin atmosphere. To accomplish this, its rotors whirl much faster than those of a helicopter on Earth. NASA will be delighted if the autonomous aircraft can lift, never mind how it gets back on the ground. Few babies taking their first steps make it far before they tumble. The longer it stays airborne the better. If it lands safely, controllers on Earth will pour champagne, and Ingenuity will lead a parade of future flying vehicles to help prepare Mars for human habitation.
My excitement over sending just my name into space must be nothing compared to that of the women and men working on Perseverance’s unprecedented journey. In those final moments before landing, I imagine mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California stopped fidgeting and held their breath as retrorockets fired to slow the descent, and the rover, hanging by three nylon ropes and an umbilical cord attached to the descent stage crane mechanism, sank slowly to the surface of Mars. The team stared at computer screens, waiting for a signal that would tell them that Perseverance had landed safely. When the signal came, joy erupted. People jumped up and down, arms lifted into the air. Their shouts, though muffled by masks, were exuberant. Observing safe distancing, they brought fists together rather than embracing. Within moments of the landing, Perseverance sent its first pictures and more fists connected.
Some young people in our area are preparing to join NASA on future ventures. Dr. Bethany Brinkman, Associate Professor and Director of the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program at Sweet Briar College said, “We’re so excited to see the fulfillment of many years of engineering, planning, and creativity with the successful landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars.” She told me that many students at the private women’s college dream of working for NASA after they graduate. Inspired by NASA, some are working on a project to build a drone that could deliver supplies to astronauts stranded at sea. A graduate from the class of ’20 is currently at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the manned missions to Mars. Dr. Brinkman said, “We especially celebrate the contributions of the many women on the [Perseverance] teams as they serve as role models for current and future engineers.”
Altavista High School also boosts some young people toward careers with aerospace organizations. Hayley Kirby, a graduate of Altavista High School who is currently working toward an M.A. in Teaching at Sweet Briar College, used to belong to the high school’s robotics club. She told me, “The organization that runs the robotics competitions—FIRST—has a long-running relationship with NASA. They assist teams by mentoring them and by providing grants. And they’ll come to competitions to support the teams. At the World Championship in 2016, my team got to meet Charles Bolden, a retired astronaut, who at the time was a NASA administrator.”
Lemuel Curran, graphic design teacher and coach for the robotics team of Altavista Combined School, said he teaches his students critical thinking skills and creative problem solving. “Above all,” he said. “I teach them how to face failure. All engineers have to know that.” He believes they will be prepared to continue their studies after graduation and pursue a career in engineering. Perhaps NASA’s Perseverance Mission will motivate some of these teens to work in the aerospace industry.
Perseverance was launched from Cape Canaveral on July 30, 2020. While it cruised through the vacuum of space on its 7-month-long trip to Mars, it left behind a planet rife with disease and political turmoil. We Earthlings still have plenty to worry about, but for one brief moment on the day Perseverance landed on the Red Planet, we laid aside our differences and marveled at what can be accomplished when we work together.