The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, Nov. 30
With the country boiling from a never-ending string of exasperating events, our worst impulses bubbling to the top, let’s take a moment to marvel at what we can do when we are at our best.
NASA’s InSight lander successfully touched down on Mars on Monday a few minutes before 3 p.m. Eastern time, ending a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.
The path to the successful landing, of course, started much earlier than that. It was the eighth successful Mars landing since Viking 1 in 1976, and each mission builds on the one before it.
You can go back even further, too, to the beginnings of the space program, to the first satellites launched nervously into orbit, to the eventual landmark landing of a manned spacecraft on the moon, and to every mission and experiment that came after.
All that experience and success may have over time made space exploration seem routine — oh, look, we landed on Mars again. However, it is anything but. It takes state-of-the-art technology operated by people with high levels of expertise and focus — and even then, only about 40 percent of Mars landings are successful.
Anyone watching (last) week can see why. InSight entered the Martian atmosphere traveling at about 12,300 mph. It had to do so precisely at the entry angle of 12 degrees; otherwise, it would have either burned up or bounced back into space.
The entry into the atmosphere begins the “seven minutes of terror,” as NASA officials call it, named after the time from entry until the landing of earlier Mars missions. In that time, through the use of a parachute and rockets, and with the help of atmospheric drag, the lander dropped from 12,300 mph to 5 mph right before it settled into the soft soil.
InSight, launched in May from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, landed at Elysium Planitia, a flat, barren landscape from which the lander will begin the first-ever investigation of the interior of Mars, sending images at regular intervals back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It is an amazing accomplishment, one that should be free of rancor and cynicism. When we want to, we can reach the stars.