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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Mission to Mars is a message to humanity

An Atlas V rockets lifts off from the

An Atlas V rockets lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center with NASA's Perseverance rover on its way to Mars on Thursday at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: AP/John Raoux

A message launched Thursday.

Oh, how we need it. 

The new Mars rover, catapulted out of Florida, is on its way to the red planet. It's called Perseverance. Good word for our times.

NASA's $2.7 billion rover has been in the works for years. Thousands of people have toiled on it, proving the efficacy of long-term planning and long-held goals. No instant gratification here, no quick and easy fixes. Just steady progress toward the target.

We've sent rovers to Mars before, but each time we add to what they do there, add to what is possible, building on a foundation erected by other painstaking work backed by other painstaking science. And we add to the degree of difficulty. This rover, which will search for signs of past life on Mars, is set to land in an area considered more likely to contain such evidence, a crater that once was an ancient lake and river delta. But this spot also has more cliffs and more rocks, which means more danger before you claim that potential reward. So you can't just wing it or short the preparation, you have to really work at it, game out every scenario and every single thing that could go wrong, and engineer a response, which only works if you stick to facts and follow their implications.

I like to think the 13-year-old Virginia boy who won a naming contest by coming up with Perseverance knew exactly what he was telling us.

A metaphor launched Thursday.

A metaphor for what we are at our best, when we think big and accomplish audacious things and no one undermines the science behind it, no one labels it a hoax, no one denies the value of the achievement, no one disparages the people involved. 

What else to call this mission but audacious. Start with the technical marvel that is Perseverance. It has 23 cameras, a drill to take samples of rock and soil, containers to store them, an ultraviolet laser to scan for signs of life — and a device that will attempt to convert into oxygen the carbon dioxide that makes up most of Mars' atmosphere. Because you need oxygen to burn fuel, and you need to burn fuel to get off Mars, and that's the only way to get those precious samples home. NASA plans to send another rover in 2026 to collect the samples and launch them to be picked up by another spacecraft and brought back to Earth in 2031.

That's audacious.

So is the tiny helicopter Perseverance is carrying, a Martian first, an experiment to see whether flight is possible in Mars' thin air and extreme cold. The copter has a name, too — Ingenuity. That's the spark you add to facts to make discoveries. It was pitched by an Alabama high schooler for the rover, but here's the thing about ingenuity — it works whenever. Another kid telling us something.

A promise launched Thursday.

And we find our eyes and minds drawn again to the heavens, on a journey to loose our imaginations and break the limits of what we think is possible. Eleven million humans are traveling along in spirit, having answered a NASA invitation to send their names to Mars by etching them into three silicon chips aboard the rover, which also has a plate that honors coronavirus first responders, earthly models of both perseverance and ingenuity. And our rover has company on its glorious journey — spacecraft recently sent hurtling to Mars by China and the United Arab Emirates. The flow of knowledge will enrich all of us, and prepare us for phases still to come.

A dream launched Thursday. May it never die.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.