The broader significance of sampling Mars

A successful Mars Sample Return Campaign, whose complexities we chronicle in the feature in this issue, would exemplify the amazing feats that governments can achieve when they coordinate to harness private-sector innovations and honor their commitments from one political administration to the next.

In fact, it’s tempting to declare that the sample return endeavor could become a template for how to solve just about any problem that’s too big for one nation, entrepreneur or billionaire. The trouble is the timeline. We won’t know for a decade if NASA and the European Space Agency succeed at bringing home some Martian dirt and rocks. We can’t wait that long to find a template for more effective global responses to pandemics, climate change, wildfires and whatever is next.

So, we should look at Mars Sample Return in another way. The work to date shows that international coordination and planning can unfold efficiently even in a highly politically charged environment, one in which the United States has fallen out of sync with its European partners on matters from the environment to national defense to the response to the pandemic.

I know that NASA has established an independent review board to examine the feasibility of the complex orchestration of space launches and rendezvous encounters still to come to complete the campaign. I don’t view this review as evidence of weakness. The likely outcome will be a stronger plan and higher odds of success.

Of course, it’s space exploration, so this is where a wise writer acknowledges that success can’t be guaranteed. No matter what happens, the Perseverance rover, on its way to Mars now as the first step in the broader sample return effort, will fascinate us with its views and in-situ studies of this once watery region, provided it arrives safely on the surface in February. Dropping tubes of samples to be picked up later by a European rover will be a huge bonus.

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About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

The broader significance of sampling Mars