The little helicopter weighs only 4 pounds, and its first flight lasted a mere 30 seconds and reached an altitude of only 10 feet. But it did so on Mars. Stop and wonder about that for a moment. For the first time, humankind has achieved powered flight on another planet. A feat that would be nothing for a 10-year-old child to accomplish with a backyard drone takes on new meaning when it happens 178 million miles away on a planet with 1% of Earth's atmosphere.
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California didn't know the flight had succeeded until more than three hours after it was over; that's how long it took the burst of data to reach Earth. Hold that thought in your mind for a second.
In a year in which a pandemic has claimed more than 567,000 American lives and 3 million across the globe, in which the promise of American justice and equity was on trial again — this time in a Minneapolis courtroom — it's worthwhile to look outside of ourselves for a second to other worlds and remember what we can accomplish as a species.
Sixty years ago this month, human spaceflight began. It wasn't an American; it was a Russian cosmonaut — Soviet, actually — named Yuri Gagarin who made one orbit of Earth and set in motion the Space Race, which pitted the Americans and the Soviets against each other in a kind of Cold War for preeminence in the actual heavens. In a stark bit of symbolism, some of the same kinds of rockets that launched astronauts into space were secreted in missile silos topped with nuclear warheads, ready to fire in an instant on command of the president that would have started a war that could only be lost.
That Space Race effectively ended in July 1969, when the late Neil Armstrong jumped off the last rung of the Lunar Module's ladder to announce "a giant leap for mankind." Back on Earth, while people across the globe were astonished that Earthlings were walking on the moon, many also wondered if those billions of dollars should have been spent instead on what we would now term social justice. The 2018 movie "First Man," a decidedly unheroic look at the Apollo moon mission, captured that mood in using the Gil Scott-Heron protest song as a sort of soundtrack: "Was all that money I made las' year (for Whitey on the moon?) How come there ain't no money here? (Hmm! Whitey's on the moon.)" The parallels to today are instructive, and we face some of those same choices. So was it worth it? Is it now?
On Thursday, an international crew will rocket toward the International Space Station aboard a commercial spacecraft called the SpaceX Crew Dragon. On board will be four astronauts — two from NASA, one from Japan and one from France — who will take command of the space station after they dock. The key word here is "international." Space has gone from a race for national dominance to a largely cooperative scientific and commercial enterprise. From satellites that make GPS and global communications possible to space probes and orbiting telescopes that enrich our understanding of the universe itself, space exploration is far different than 60 years ago when it was a battle of international will. Today's watchwords are cooperation, not competition; wonder, not proxy war.
That little helicopter on Mars will make more flights, but it has no point except to expand our sense of the possible. If we can fly on Mars, we are capable of so much else. If we don't keep looking boldly to the far horizon and the future, where do we look instead? Down at our feet? So, yes, it is worth it, for reminding us all what we can accomplish on Mars — and back here on Earth — if we put our minds to it.