All this came to mind as I watched the new documentary: “Goodnight, Oppy” about the Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” whose mission (intended to run 90ish days) actually continued from 2004 until 2018. It’s a pretty slick production (available on Amazon), a paean to modernity, filled with the romance of engineering (yes, there is such a thing!), not a little anthropomorphizing, a bunch of science, and, most of all, human achievement.
I’m not ashamed to say that I was touched by the spirit of accomplishment and teamwork which the Mars Rover Team conveyed. I had had a similar sense when I saw the successor to “Opportunity”: “Curiosity” land on Mars in 2012 (still running after 10 years); using a stunning conception of multiple technologies to make it happen. The chills were not just envy of their comraderie, but also a feeling of participation—of human-ness—in the face of the vast emptiness of space. In such an expanse, the values of family, clan, and team go a long way towards ameliorating the bewilderment of the cosmos.
I’ve read more than enough science fiction in my day with many tales of interplanetary adventure and portraits of cultures spread across the galaxy on the backs of human ingenuity. Star Trek is certainly a leading example; so is Star Wars, and neither is among the best in terms of writing or imagination. Yet, the fun of the fictional accounts (of whatever quality) lacks the reality of our accomplishments over the past two decades on Mars.
The epochal thrills of July, 1969, when we landed on the Moon have faded for many and are unknown to the 85% of people today who hadn’t been born (or were too young). Space-wise, it’s been a pretty quiet half-century; with much of the techno-awesomeness shifting to the information and biosci areas. And, to be sure, there is definitely a sense of “early days” about the Mars Rovers. I doubt folks went “gaga” over Columbus’ maritime tech in 1492, and most of the so-called “Age of Exploration” was highly colored in the mode of the “Christian West takes on the world” or various flavors of inter-national competition. We have much the same, only lately it's been USA vs. USSR, or USA vs. China as the reality behind the slick tag lines (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a plaque on the Moon reading: “We came in peace for all mankind.”).
The “space race” of the 1960s reflected much the same mix of economic/technology development and geo (cosmo-?) politics as did the earlier “Age of Exploration.” There’s little doubt that NASA’s recent moon rocket test (Project Artemis) was also spurred on by the extra-terrestrial presence of Chinese Taikonauts and tech (not to mention SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and other billionaire space projects). We beat the Russians back in the 1960s and we don’t want to let some other “commies” out-flank us on the Moon or Mars in the 21C.
Even leaving the moral and political issues to the side, we look back on the deeds of centuries ago with much more amazement at their meagerness (compared to where we are now) than amazement at their accomplishment/bravery/foolishness. I suspect that if we are around to do so in a couple of hundred years, that people of the 23d century will feel the same condescension towards our initial, often faltering, steps. And those from the 33d century may well feel the same about us as we do about Viking ships and Polynesian long-distance sea canoes.
Still, from where we are now, the story is remarkable and so is the opportunity (ditto for the “Spirit,” the “Curiosity,” the “Perseverance”). Perhaps the part to which I so connected—even more that the team’s energy—was that these projects symbolize our human potential. Amid all the (very) messed up things on this planet, it’s not our lack of ability that is in doubt; rather, we insist on pettiness, greed, and short-sightedness instead. These impediments are as human as our dreams. I’m glad we have R2D2’s squeaks and Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise “to boldly go….” I’m even more glad that we have lots of unglamorous folks working hard to nudge a little robot that is actually trundling over red sands on another planet.
In this holiday season, there’s still room for wonder and awe.