NASA's Perseverance rover landing: Why going to Mars should matter to you

Commentary: Our world is a mess, why bother with another? CNET's Eric Mack has three reasons.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
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Eric Mack
5 min read

This artist's illustration shows a "sky crane" gently lowering Perseverance to the surface of Mars.


NASA successfully landed its most advanced rover ever on the surface of another planet this week. The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is the fifth such rolling robot the space agency has sent to the red planet, and when the mission is over, it will have cost nearly $3 billion.

With a pandemic bringing everyday existence on the surface of our own planet to arguably its lowest point since humans entered the space age several decades ago, it's fair to wonder why we're devoting any resources to sending our best tech to explore a cold, dead desert planet bathed in radiation.

There are actually a number of arguments that range from the philosophical to more practical. Here are three for those who can't fathom how sending a nerdy dune buggy carrying a tiny helicopter on a 100-million-mile road trip is justifiable.

The fragility of our planet

There's some evidence suggesting our two nearest planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, were once habitable. Today, they're both deadly places, though the dangers of Mars are at least theoretically manageable through technology and perhaps some ambitious terraforming.

Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater, which is thought to have once been the site of a large river delta flowing into a crater lake. Conditions may have been right for life, which the rover hopes to find evidence of.


This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Jezero Crater delta region. 


But something happened. Mars lost much of its atmosphere and it dried up and became the colder, inhospitable world we know today.

Somewhere in this past there might be some lessons and cautionary tales for earthlings. If our two closest neighbors were transformed from more friendly climes to the relative hellscapes they are today, we should want to know more about what happened. It's certainly worth more than one visit.


A visible green line reflected by oxygen molecules is seen at the edge of Earth's atmosphere.


We imagine Earth as a big floating ball teeming with life, but the reality is more tenuous. When viewed from orbit, a greenish line of glowing oxygen marking the edge of our atmosphere is visible above our planet. This glowing line reveals the true fragility of our planet's habitable zone, which is not the entire planet, but rather a small bubble on its surface extending from roughly sea level to a few miles in altitude, and not really including the polar regions, either.

When seen this way, it almost feels as though that bubble could easily pop. It happened on Mars, so maybe it could happen here.

Doing the hard things because they are hard

I'm paraphrasing John F. Kennedy -- doing the hard things because they are hard -- speaking about the Apollo project to put humans on the moon. It's not an entirely honest justification for spending the big chunk of the US budget that was dropped on NASA to get us there, however.

The dawn of the space age, the Apollo program and the breathtaking speed with which we went from fully earthbound to hitting golf balls on the moon was motivated in no small part by military and geopolitical concerns.

It's easy to look back and think that we wasted a significant chunk of our gross domestic product on a Cold War space race that was more about ego and national pride than science and exploration. It's a fair criticism. But whatever the motivation, the results were more than just bragging rights and a flag in the Sea of Tranquility. 

Apollo 11 moon landing: Neil Armstrong's defining moment

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By going to space, we have revolutionized life on Earth.

The ways this is true are too numerous to list, so think of just one: What began with the terrifying (to Americans) successful launch of the Soviet bucket of bolts named Sputnik eventually created our modern lifestyle that depends on thousands of successor satellites beaming all our information, images, transactions and communications around the world at light speed.

What started as technological muscle flexing between global powers has changed countless aspects of the daily life of billions of humans.

Exploring Mars involves overcoming countless challenges through engineering and innovation, not to mention Perseverance and Ingenuity. What we learn from the successes and failures of meeting those challenges may spark the next revolution that will make life in 2071 beyond anything we can imagine right now.


Elon Musk's goal is to establish a city on Mars.


Elon Musk has a vision

You've already heard this one. Elon Musk, one of the richest dudes in history, wants to build a city on Mars and make humans a "multiplanetary" species or something like that. Part of this argument is that Earth is not nearly as safe and secure as it seems. Massive solar flares, impact by a comet, nuclear annihilation, environmental collapse and perhaps catastrophes we haven't even thought of are all very much possibilities, so it makes sense to have a backup plan.

That's the pessimistic version of this case that's easiest to argue. But we rarely hear the other side of this vision argued, which is more in line with the Star Trek ethic: "To boldly go..."

These days it can be hard to even talk about setting up shop on Mars because the words I might use to describe such an activity have become justifiably taboo -- words like colonize, settle and occupy. It's true that the history of human expansion is littered with horrors, and Musk using the fear of an uncertain future to sell a new kind of colonialism does give me pause.

But I don't think that's the right way to look at it, and it's not how the people behind Perseverance think about it. The mission's goals are strictly about scientific discovery and technological demonstration. So much so that some of the wonder of what's actually being accomplished can get lost.

Think about how you, as an individual, have grown as a person each time you visit a new place or experience something new. Your first day of school, first time outside your town or state, first plane ride, first time abroad, etc. 

A 23rd-century tourist guide to the galaxy

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I remember one particular jet-lagged morning in my twenties in a dirt cheap hostel in Thailand waking up before dawn and walking around a little neighborhood in Bangkok. Around every corner was something unfamiliar: words I couldn't understand, things being sold as food I never thought of as edible, people doing activities I couldn't identify as exercise or prayer or something in between.

It became clear that morning that I knew very, very little about the wider world. When I finally die or get uploaded to the cloud, I will hopefully be a bit less ignorant, but the same basic statement will certainly still be true.

Going to Mars and beyond could be the same sort of eye-opening experience for humanity as a species. Becoming multiplanetary doesn't have to be about having a backup plan, it could be about evolving and becoming better, wiser and a little less ignorant about the universe and our place in it.

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