At 3:55 p.m. yesterday, not a minute later than scheduled, the NASA rover Perseverance daintily dropped to the surface of Mars in Jezero Crater, just seven short months after leaving Earth. Within a few minutes, Perseverance casually snapped a few shots for its Instagram — including a selfie — confirming its remarkably smooth arrival. This was not the first time we’ve landed a rover on Mars, of course, but after four years of EPA gaslighting, Sharpiegate, and the Starship Troopers cosplay that is the Space Force, this moment hit different. As the cheers erupted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s mission control — a room filled with masked and plexiglass-divided scientists and engineers that was much more sparsely populated than during previous landings — I saw something I hadn’t seen before. I saw how the science that got us to another planet will deliver our own from the climate crisis.
Take the rover itself. Here we have one of the most efficient electric vehicles ever produced: a rugged, remote-controlled six-wheeler engineered for both extreme heat and extreme cold and powered by a nuclear battery. Not only is Perseverance the next-generation version of an all-weather Chevy Bolt, it’s carrying a small solar-powered electric helicopter (name: Ingenuity), that’s being stored on the rover’s belly. If we can master interplanetary, zero-emission transportation, building out a next-generation fleet of high-speed trains, EVs, and cargo bikes really shouldn’t be a problem.
Then there’s the science the rover is there to perform. Among the many experiments it’s conducting to look for signs of life, Perseverance is going to try to make oxygen from Mars’s carbon-dioxide-heavy atmosphere. This is a feat that would be critical for a crewed mission to the Red Planet if we wanted to spend any extended period of time there, Matt Damon–style. (The oxygen may also potentially be used for fuel.) Of course, these findings could be used toward developing carbon-capture technology and other ways to convert carbon to sustainable fuel back home.
There’s no way we would understand the severity of the crisis we’re facing if we hadn’t gone to Mars in the first place. Tools for measuring water and wind on a distant planet have aided our understanding of how these same forces work on Earth, allowing sophisticated forecasting that can not only more accurately predict the severity of climate disasters but help humans make long-range plans for climate adaptation. Exploring space has become a way to peer into our own future and make some necessary adjustments — which is almost surely one of the reasons the Trump administration, complicit with the fossil-fuel industry, tried so hard to pull the plug on certain aspects of NASA’s research on greenhouse gases.
As I watched Perseverance land, it was the second time I had cried that day. The first was earlier that morning, when I read a story about a family in Texas that died from carbon-monoxide poisoning because they had used a gas-powered heater indoors to stave off subzero temperatures after their power had been cut. It was a devastating dichotomy, a skyrocketing, orbit-shattering high, plummeting back to reality. The same government that has successfully deployed a half-dozen missions studying the extreme climate of Mars has spent decades ignoring our own — a climate that grows more extreme every day that we refuse to start repairing it.
We need this scientific expertise to permeate every aspect of society if we have any chance of surviving what is our most existential crisis. The Biden administration, finally aligning scientific priorities with fiscal ones, has already taken a major step to elevate the role of scientists in the federal government, filling key appointments in positions that sat empty for years and making the science adviser’s role a Cabinet position. Biden also needs to give NASA a lot more money. The agency’s spending delivers a remarkable return on investment with triumphant feats that unite us in the present moment while equipping us to address the challenges we will face in the future. The 1960s race to the moon more or less directly led to the development of your computer’s microprocessor, your smartphone, and even some of the food you eat. This time out, the scientists who brought us along on a fantastical field trip to Mars have already provided us with a lot of the tools we’ll need to address our most serious issue on Earth. It’s up to the rest of us to pay attention and start using them.