Over the Horizon and Way Beyond

It’s in our DNA to explore, to cross oceans, to reconnoiter bays, to run rivers, or just to probe the recesses of our own minds. When our compulsion to explore—for food, safety, conquest, enrichment or simple curiosity about what was over the next hill—led us away from our ancient origins, we started something that would define us as humans. Eventually, we conceived vehicles to carry ourselves and our gear farther and faster with navigation ever more complex and accurate.

I don’t know about you, but I found the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars an unexpectedly exhilarating, emotional experience. I’m not sure what triggered my reaction. We’ve sent probes farther into space, and we’ve put ingenious rovers on Mars before, but this one somehow felt different—more dramatic, more consequential. In the days that followed the landing, with high-definition video of the landing itself shot from the spacecraft, my feeling grew in intensity. It was unimaginably cool.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve had an abiding interest in stories about people who’ve risked all to explore the polar regions, the sea, the highest mountains, the deepest caves and anywhere else humans have never been. I’m not a scientist, but I can appreciate the efforts of those who spend their lives exploring the exquisite complexities of life on Earth and beyond, past and present, with an eye toward the future. My lifetime has spanned the arc of human space exploration beginning with Sputnik in 1957. Like most people my age, I’ve followed the milestones: Mercury and Gemini, the Apollo moon landings, the space stations, the shuttles and the planetary probes. The Perseverance mission has affected me more than most.

While our human ancestors likely left their caves for simpler reasons such as sustaining life, the Perseverance Mars mission was conceived almost 20 years ago to search for signs of long-gone ancient life—or clues to its demise—with an eye toward preserving future life on Earth. There’s a compelling beauty in that. There’s also a compelling beauty in the technology required to build machines that can travel 300 million miles, touch down softly and precisely on target, and then move about collecting materials another spacecraft will pick up in 10 years and return to Earth. The rover even carries the first extraterrestrial drone.

I once sailed from Massachusetts to Bermuda with friends who’d spent 10 years building a low-tech, 56-foot ferro-cement ketch. The only electronics aboard were a single-sideband radio, a VHF radio, and a radio direction finder. Somehow, we made it to the little patch of terra firma 600 miles off the North Carolina coast. Our motivations were hardly as high-minded as NASA’s Perseverance mission, but to us, getting there was a pretty big deal. It wasn’t Mars, but it may as well have been.

Our trip took just over six days. The Perseverance mission covered its distance in just over six months, planned and executed by humans with the help of computing power inconceivable when the Soviets put their little spiny ball into orbit 63 years ago. At the end of our little boat trip, we had the pleasure of walking into a bar and downing a few Dark ’n’ Stormys to celebrate our accomplishment. The human explorers who eventually make landfall on the red planet won’t have that pleasure, but the magnitude of their achievement, and that of the human race, surely will warrant cracking open a bag of Tang or at least some distilled byproduct of the human body.

The name Perseverance sprang from a student contest. It evokes the relentless ingenuity and commitment to the search for knowledge the project took. Ironically, the boat we sailed to Bermuda was also named Perseverance. Maybe that coincidence is buried somewhere in my emotional reaction to this paragon of human exploration.

More likely, it is just a simple appreciation of the magnitude of the journey explorers have made since we ventured out of the caves.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue.