NASA’s newest Mars lander, InSight, landed perfectly on Elysium Planitia, near the Martian equator, Monday afternoon after a six-month long trip from Earth. This is a significant accomplishment for NASA, the U.S. and the world — one that will uplift and inspire perhaps millions of students, scientists, explorers and citizens.
“Flawless,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Rob Manning declared amid cheers from JPL’s flight controllers in Pasadena, Calif., as they received the signal of InSight’s complex but successful landing.
This is not easy work — it literally requires rocket scientists. NASA’s engineers, designers and technicians figured out how to send an 800-pound piece of metal with highly sensitive instruments through 300 million miles of space and land it precisely where it was aimed. It’s a master class in scientific and technological expertise.
As things go these days, the lander soon sent back a selfie and some tweets. It now joins Curiosity, the U.S. rover that arrived in 2012 and runs years after it was intended to conclude its mission, and Opportunity, the U.S. rover that landed in 2004, but has most likely now reached the end of its mission.
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), while a vessel of exploration, will be stationary. Its mission is to study seismic waves under Mars’ surface to discover clues about the planet’s past. With a significant amount of evidence to suggest that Mars once had liquid water flowing on its surface, as well as a global magnetic field, scientists hope to learn how it then became the dry, desolate desert that we see today. The implications for Earth are significant.
The spacecraft is not entirely a U.S. product. Germany and France contributed to the $1 billion price tag as well as some of the scientific instruments InSight will use in its mission. Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Poland also contributed. But the U.S. led the way.
Some will wonder at the expense and ask if there couldn’t be a better use for the money. But NASA’s 2018 budget of $20.7 billion is less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. It’s a drop in the bucket. And its return, in terms of knowledge, inspiration and the technological byproducts generated by space research — contributing to aircraft anti-icing systems, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), CAT scans, scratch-resistant lenses and more — pay us back significantly.
The U.S. is not the only major player in space exploration. Japan, India and several other countries have Martian orbiters now. China plans to send a lander to Mars in 2020. Private companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX also want to get in on the act.
But in many ways, the U.S. still sets the pace. We’ve set the standard that others hope to meet. We should take pride in the American know-how, vision and dedication required to succeed on an interplanetary scale and dedicate ourselves to maintaining our lead.