For thousands of years, earth-bound humans have looked up at the planet Mars and dreamed of one day visiting there. Until a quarter century ago, however, all we could do is dream. We could look through telescopes, of course, but they brought our knowledge of the surface of the red planet only a bit closer.
But through the brilliance, dedication and hard work of hundreds of scientists, we now have a much better idea of what the surface of Mars looks like — and as of a few days ago, sounds like. What an amazing experience.
The Soviet Union won the race to Mars, landing two rovers on the planet’s surface on Dec. 2, 1971. One rover lasted only 20 seconds after crashing on the Martian surface. For 104.5 seconds, the second rover — tethered to the Mars 3 lander — communicated with Earth. And then, for unknown reasons, it quit communicating and the Soviet scientists were unable to reestablish the connection.
More than a quarter century later, on July 4, 1997, America landed the Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover, which sent back the first photos of the Martian surface. Before it stopped responding on Sept. 27, 1997, Sojourner had traveled an amazing 330 feet. Remember, that was 330 feet on a planet more than 134 million miles from Earth.
In January 2004, the United States landed two rovers on Mars: Spirit and Opportunity. Both were expected to travel only a short distance in their 90-day missions, sending back photos and other information. Yet both far surpassed our expectations. Spirit traveled 4.8 miles before becoming bogged down in sand. The pictures and information it sent back before it stopped communicating on March 22, 2010, greatly expanded our knowledge of Mars.
Before dying in a Martian dust storm on June 10, 2018, Opportunity traveled more than 28 miles, far beyond its planned mission. As the rover continued on and on, America and the world watched in amazement and, to put it mildly, great affection.
Next to explore the planet was Curiosity, which landed on Aug. 6, 2012, on a mission to study Mars’ geology and climate. Curiosity’s mission had been extended beyond its original five years and it continues it explorations today, traveling more than 15 miles and climbing almost 1,100 feet up Mount Sharp, sending back invaluable data to scientists on Earth.
Then, on Feb. 18, as Texas froze in winter storms — with many Texans without power for days — the Mars rover Perseverance was lowered gently to the surface of Mars. For seven tense minutes, scientists had to endure a communications blackout due to the heat of entry through the Martian atmosphere. With shouts of joy and excitement, scientists back on Earth were told the rover had arrived on Mars. The size of a small car — the biggest rover ever on Mars — Perseverance began sending back the first high resolution photos from the Red Planet. We were thrilled as it sent back photos of its descent, lowered from a a hovering space craft that had been lowered toward Mars by a parachute.
On Feb. 20, we heard, for the very first time, the sounds on the surface of Mars when Perseverance sent back a 60-second audio clip that included the sound of a Martian breeze.
At a time when the world is suffering through a COVID-19 pandemic, when America is divided left and right as never before, the sights and the sounds sent home by the rover Perseverance provide hope and promise for the future.
Most of us never will set foot on the surface of Mars, but some day, in the not-too-distant future, some of us will.
That assures us that humankind will continue, still will strive for the stars, moving ever forward, ever upward with an eye to the future.
And that brings us hope.