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Editorial: Who wouldn’t want to go to Mars these days?

A NASA illustration shows the Ingenuity Mars helicopter on the red planet's surface near the Perseverance rover
An illustration of the Ingenuity helicopter on the red planet’s surface near the Perseverance rover.
(NASA)

Let’s get out of here.

Who hasn’t thought that at some point in the past four months, as we hunkered down in our homes, brooding and restless but with no place to go? The pandemic shuttered our offices and made the idea of venturing anywhere more ambitious than a grocery store seem like a perilous journey. Any trip that required a flight or a stroll among the masses — even masked — seemed an unreasonable risk.

So is it any wonder, in our longing to get away from this virus-riddled existence, that we have found an escape in space? We have hitched a virtual ride on the rocket that will take the intrepid Mars rover, Perseverance (of course that’s its name), to the red planet. Takeoff for this $2.4-billion mission could happen as early as Thursday, and it’s not a moment too soon.

While we barely have occasion to drive more than three miles (when was the last time you bought gas?), the space vehicle carrying the JPL-built robotic explorer will travel 309 million miles. Once it arrives at an ancient lake bed, it will tour the surface, scouting for evidence of extraterrestrial life and sending back not just pictures but sounds. Are we even prepared?

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Suddenly a planet that is forbidding — with its frigid minus-80 degree temperature and thin, unbreathable atmosphere — seems more inviting than our pandemic-wracked Earth. And while our entire planet put their plans on hold, this was one trip that could not be postponed. The orbits of Earth and Mars align only once every 26 months. If scientists miss their shot this time, they will have to wait two years before trying again.

Ten spacecraft — including four rovers — have landed there over the past half century. We are enthusiastically racking up the frequent flier miles to Mars, all in the hopes that one day people will fly there too. It’s exhilarating that the pandemic didn’t stop this trip.

The rover isn’t the only extraterrestrial object that has caught our imaginations and let us, at least mentally, travel far, far away. This month we caught sight of the flashy comet NEOWISE, so named for the acronym of the astronomical space telescope that discovered it. And if you missed that, you could be mesmerized by Venus shining with unnerving brightness in the pre-dawn sky.

We also watched raptly as NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley rocketed to the International Space Station in the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in late May. Who didn’t envy them a little bit?


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