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The lesson of a little helicopter on Mars | Editorial
A short flight reminds us all of what is possible on Mars ... and on Earth.
This image from NASA’s Perseverance rover shows the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on the Martian surface.
This image from NASA’s Perseverance rover shows the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on the Martian surface. [ NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 19
Updated Apr. 20

The little helicopter weighs only 4 pounds, and its first flight lasted a mere 30 seconds and reached an altitude of only 10 feet. But it did so on Mars. Stop and wonder about that for a moment. For the first time, humankind has achieved powered flight on another planet. A feat that would be nothing for a 10-year-old child to accomplish with a back-yard drone takes on new meaning when it happens 178 million miles away on a planet with 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California didn’t know the flight had succeeded until more than three hours after it was over; that’s when the burst of data confirming success was finally relayed to Earth. Hold that thought in your mind for a second.

In a year in which a pandemic has claimed more than 567,000 American lives and 3 million across the globe, in which the promise of American justice and equity is on trial again — this time in a Minneapolis courtroom, it’s worthwhile to look outside of ourselves for a second to other worlds and remember what we can accomplish as a species.

Soviet Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave Earth on April 12, 1961.
Soviet Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave Earth on April 12, 1961.

Sixty years ago this month, human space flight began. It wasn’t an American; it was a Russian cosmonaut — Soviet, actually — named Yuri Gagarin who made one orbit of Earth and set in motion the Space Race, which pitted the Americans and the Soviets against each other in a kind of Cold War for preeminence in the actual heavens. In a stark bit of symbolism, some of the same kinds of rockets that launched astronauts into space were secreted in missile silos topped with nuclear warheads, ready to fire in an instant on command of the president that would have started a war that could only be lost.

That Space Race effectively ended in July 1969, when the late Neil Armstrong jumped off the last rung of the Lunar Module’s ladder to announce “a giant leap for mankind.” Back on Earth, while people across the globe were astonished that Earthlings were walking on the moon, many also wondered if those billions of dollars should have been spent instead on what we would now term social justice. The 2018 movie First Man, a decidedly unheroic look at the Apollo moon mission, captured that mood in using the Gil Scott-Heron protest song as a sort of soundtrack: “Was all that money I made las’ year (for Whitey on the moon?) How come there ain’t no money here? (Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon.)” The parallels to today are instructive, and we face some of those same choices. So was it worth it? Is it now?

SpaceX Crew 2 member European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, center, answers questions from reporters with fellow crew members, back from left, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The launch is targeted for Thursday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
SpaceX Crew 2 member European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, center, answers questions from reporters with fellow crew members, back from left, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The launch is targeted for Thursday. (AP Photo/John Raoux) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

On Thursday, an international crew will rocket toward the International Space Station aboard a commercial spacecraft called the SpaceX Crew Dragon. On board will be four astronauts — two from NASA, one from Japan and one from France who will take command of the space station after they dock. The key word here is “international.” Space has gone from a race for national dominance to a largely cooperative scientific and commercial enterprise. From satellites that make GPS and global communications possible to space probes and orbiting telescopes that enrich our understanding of the universe itself, space exploration is far different than 60 years ago when it was a battle of international will. Today’s watchwords are cooperation, not competition; wonder, not proxy war.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieves powered, controlled flight for the first time on another planet, hovering for several seconds before touching back down on Monday. The image was taken by the left Navigation Camera, or Navcam, aboard the agency’s Perseverance Mars rover from a distance of 210 feet.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieves powered, controlled flight for the first time on another planet, hovering for several seconds before touching back down on Monday. The image was taken by the left Navigation Camera, or Navcam, aboard the agency’s Perseverance Mars rover from a distance of 210 feet. [ NASA/JPL-Caltech ]

That little helicopter on Mars will make more flights, but it has no point except to expand our sense of the possible. If we can fly on Mars, we are capable of so much else. If we don’t keep looking boldly to the far horizon and the future, where do we look instead? Down at our feet? So, yes, it is worth it, for reminding us all what we can accomplish on Mars — and back here on Earth — if we put our minds to it.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.