Nasa is back with a bang after its perfect landing of Perseverance, an SUV-sized rover, on Mars.
The world’s premier space agency had been a bit in the doldrums in recent years.
Its astronauts had to hitch rides on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station after the end of the space shuttle programme. And it has been using Elon Musk’s SpaceX to ferry cargo.
The Constellation project, which involved going back to the Moon, was cancelled under Barack Obama, a period when Nasa also faced budget cuts.
However, last year it got a budget boost and Congress backed its proposed Artemis mission to put the first woman, and next man, on the Moon, ideally by 2024.
There was a lot riding on the Perseverance mission, not just the science.
As it seeks support from politicians and the public for the return to the Moon , and ultimately a very expensive human Mars trip, Nasa needed to prove it still had its mojo.
Pictured: Mars landing and subsequent photos
The Perseverance landing showed it does. The facts speak for themselves.
Five rovers have now made it successfully to Mars, all of them Nasa’s. No one else has done it once. And it hasn’t had one fail since 1999.
This was the most difficult landing so far, and the space agency had played down expectations.
It was, one Nasa scientist admitted, a “bit of a gamble” to spend $2.7 billion shooting for a landing in an ancient river bed littered with rocks.
But the calmness of its mission control operators during the rover’s descent – the so-called “seven minutes of terror” – was Zen-like.
Afterwards, one of them could be heard saying jubilantly: “Nasa’s back!”
Things may now move quickly. Next week, Nasa will test fire the engines of its massive Space Launch System [SLS] “megarocket”.
A test flight – called Artemis 1 – is due later this year in which the SLS will launch an unmanned Orion capsule around the Moon.
NASA’s Perseverance rover mission to Mars
It will be the most powerful rocket flown in space, and go further than any spacecraft built for humans has ever done before.
The return of humans to the Moon is intended to be used as “stepping stone to Mars” with a goal of getting people there in the 2030s.
If so, the first humans on Mars are already old enough to have been watching the Perseverance landing.
Elon Musk wants to be there even sooner, having set 2026 as a goal to land humans on Mars.
His giant stainless steel Starship rocket would ultimately take dozens of people there at a time.
A prototype blew up during a test a few weeks ago, but Mr Musk is pressing on apace.
Ultimately, much of the drive to get to Mars – more so for Nasa than Mr Musk – will depend on public opinion.
History of Mars landings
Nasa currently faces the same issue it did in the 1960s as it spent huge amounts getting men to the Moon while America was facing civil rights demonstrations and domestic fallout from the Vietnam War.
Now, during a pandemic, many may wonder about the cost of going to Mars.
Joe Biden’s White House has said it supports the Artemis programme, and returning to the Moon, but has not laid out a clear space policy.
However, Mr Biden was effusive in his praise for the Perseverance mission.
He watched it on TV at the White House, phoned the head of Nasa afterwards, and declared that with “American ingenuity nothing is beyond the realm of possibility”.
Although some may balk at the astronomical cost, Mr Biden’s enthusiasm bodes well for a manned mission to the Red Planet.
Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/02/19/analysis-nasas-mars-perseverance-landing-means-humans-could/