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Dare Mighty Things...
Mars, Journalism, and Teddy Roosevelt
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt
It always surprises me how many things in life we acknowledge but never really take time to understand. I mean, seriously, look around. There’s live video from around the world coming from a big screen right inside your house. Magical! You’re carrying a computer in your pocket, the capability of which couldn’t have been imagined by most a few short years ago. Oh, and it also has an incredible camera. Oh, and it doubles as your phone. Oh, and with a touch of an icon and a few menu items you can have food from dozens of restaurants delivered contact free to your own damn front door. That last one is our favorite…by far. We are eternally grateful. What an amazing time we live in!
When you begin to explore, actually look at the astounding and seemingly impossible things that we humans can do, you can’t help but be in awe. For example: Did you know that since 1976 NASA has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars nine different times? That’s on the Red Planet fourth from the Sun, for those keeping score - an 80-million mile road trip from here to there.
The first seven landings were impressive enough, I mean seriously, just sending an object through space at 48,000 miles per hour and actually getting from point A to B is cause for major celebration. It’s the last two missions, however, that really force you to consider whether the whole NASA thing is nothing more than a front for superior alien beings motivated by the desire to return to their home planet? See, both the Curiosity Rover, which landed in 2012, and the more recent one, Perseverance, in early 2021, were very different than their predecessors. Unlike the first seven, which were a combination of small tripod-like structures and wheeled boxes no bigger than your microwave oven, Curiosity and Perseverance were both the size of a small car weighing in at over 2,000 pounds, each with a price tag in the multi-billions of dollars.
NASA was pretty confident they could get the new Rover Cars to Mars, they’d just have to use a bigger, more powerful rocket. It was the actual landing once they got there that had ’em stumped. Because of the size and weight now involved, the conventional methods previously used would never do. Visions of a $2.5 Billion dollar pile of twisted metal was a haunting nightmare through a process that seemed, at times, like nothing more than game of “what if” always ending in the need for some sort of divine intervention or genie in a bottle to make it work. But…convinced the need was real, the improbable, free-wheeling, sometimes downright goofy and laughable ideation, obviously, never stopped. More on that in a minute…
A Desperate Cry…
As I was geeking out on this space stuff, my mind flashed on something I read this past week - Steve Waldman’s impassioned plea in the Columbia Journalism Review for the adoption of drastic, - some might say unthinkable - measures to save journalism in the United States. I’ve read dozens of related articles over the past months, but none conveyed the sense of sheer desperation found in Steve’s. In essence, he calls for the government to step in and bail out the profession much in the same way it did with the auto and banking industries. He characterizes journalism akin to what economists call a “public good”.
“This means it involves products and services that might not make for a viable business but have significant, and often diffuse, value to residents,” Waldman explained. It’s also worth noting that we have had no problem with the government providing massive packages of assistance to American industries that were deemed important to the country, including the auto industry and the financial sector. A vibrant, free local press is as important to the country as those industries.”
He goes on to talk about the 1,800 communities in this country without the benefit of local news and the frightening impact as a result.
“Less local news leads to lower voter turnout, less civic participation in Parent Teacher Associations and other groups, more corruption, higher taxes, and lower bond ratings. And in general it makes it harder for voters to hold elected officials accountable, and for communities to solve their problems.”
I don’t have to tell you, but will anyway, this is a topic I take VERY seriously. I think and talk about it - much to your chagrin, I’m sure - more than just about any issue our country is currently confronted with because I think it’s the absolute key to our continued relevance and survival. I gotta say though, this article, for whatever reason, brought it all home like never before, on a very emotional level. You can just feel the anxiety and frustration in every sentence. Sadly, I agree with just about every word. I do think, as Steve notes, we’ve reached that point where ALL potential remedies to this growing, destructive, phenomenon MUST be considered. Please read it for yourself and give it some thought. And while you do, consider…
Making the Impossible…Possible
What the NASA team had to figure out was how to land car-sized rovers on Mars without using any conventional means. There was no Earth-like, soupy, atmosphere to slow it down. They couldn’t simply use rockets to ease the Rovers into place, because the thrust would have to be so powerful it would have blasted open a crater which the vehicle might never have been able to escape. The bottom line was that they needed to softly, gently, set the Mars Cars on the surface at a drop rate of no more than 3 miles-per-hour, roughly the speed of a human jumping down to the floor from a thick book.
Honestly, to a lay person like me, what the NASA Team came up with sounded like something you’d hear from a group who’d lapsed into delirium-fueled absurdity after pulling a series of all-nighters. It involved, among other things, a sky crane made of nylon ropes, laser knives, a jet pack, and a parachute (image above) the size of a little league infield - the largest ever deployed. And, for good measure, thanks to the fact that there is no place on Earth remotely similar to the conditions they were going to encounter getting to Mars’ surface, they were never able to really test the wild concept and contraptions.
Needless-to-say, we all know it worked both times. Rather spectacularly, I hasten to add. Curiosity. Perseverance. Innovation. Determination.
Desperate Times…Desperate Measures
As part of his sounding of the alarm, Steve Waldman has launched an organization called “Rebuild Local News”, which he describes as “enthusiastic advocates for certain types of urgent government action, as part of a multifaceted effort to revitalize community journalism.” The group will focus on public policy and increased private donations and support in an effort to stem the tide of ever-growing news deserts. I think it’s a noble and necessary pursuit. But, let’s not forget about Mars.
Somehow, someway, we need our own version of “NASA Scientists.” A commission charged with the responsibility of meeting a massive, seemingly insurmountable, and yet critically important need. One that features the kind of free association and willingness to accept things never considered in the past to solve a challenge unique to our time. Right here. Right now. New ideas. New assumptions. Trial. Error. Rinse and Repeat.
Teddy Roosevelt in Space…
That humongous parachute that was part of NASA’s landing solution for the Mars Cars featured an encoded message on top of the unfurled canopy. It was the Roosevelt quote that kicked off this article. In that same vein, the 26th President also gave the following, which is every bit as applicable for the day and place we find ourselves in.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…" Theodore Roosevelt
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