The February Triple Crown

Huh? In the next few days, a probe named “Hope” built by the United Arab Emirates will touch down on Mars, a day later a Chinese rover, Tianwen-1, will touch down, and the following week, NASA’s “Perseverance” rover will touch down. If successful, Perseverance will be our nation’s fifth robotic vehicle to traverse Martian soil since 1997. Two earlier missions in 1971 failed.
Why should we go to another planet? Why spend $3B on spacecraft when we could feed the poor here or give more tax breaks to billionaires? We’ve already been there four times, what more can we learn?
For one thing, all our past missions have barely scratched the surface of exploration, literally and figuratively. Perseverance will launch a drone designed to fly in the very thin Martian atmosphere. While a rover might travel a few hundred yards in a day, a drone can cover that distance in seconds.
We may uncover archaic life forms that could help us better understand life on earth. Perhaps novel proteins and RNA could help us with our own medical and agricultural challenges. Perhaps we will develop deeper understanding of the mechanisms that led to the loss of protective ozone layer, loss of atmosphere and loss of water on Mars. Perhaps we will discover new minerals. No telling what we might find if we look.
But there is one other aspect to space exploration we often miss. Scientists from all these countries work together on space missions. They share findings. They attend international conferences. It is a layer of international cooperation and good will the public seldom hears about. This is the kind of “soft diplomacy” like student exchange programs and agricultural consultations that foster international harmony. The UAE partnered with the University of Colorado-Boulder for the project. The scientific head of the UAE mission is a (drum roll) woman! Her highly visible role in a center of national pride will give hope and encouragement to thousands of young women in an area of the world where women have been oppressed for thousands of years.
Anything that sets humanity’s sights on bigger things while generating harmony and good will on earth is a good thing.

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