c.2021 The New York Times Company and Christina Díaz Hernández
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TURNING POINT: In NASA’s most audacious effort to find evidence of past life on Mars, the space agency lands the robotic explorer Perseverance on the red planet.
HUMANITY’S MISSION TO MARS IS A TESTAMENT TO THOSE WHO STRUGGLED, SACRIFICED AND PUSHED TOWARD A BETTER TOMORROW FOR THE NEXT GENERATION.
On Feb. 18, 2021, a one-ton robotic explorer carrying an assortment of scientific gizmos and gadgets landed on the surface of Mars. Her name was Perseverance.
Her mission objectives were clear: Study the geological evolution of the planet’s Jezero crater, a region that was once filled with river channels and a Lake Tahoe-sized body of water more than 3.5 billion years ago; seek evidence of possible microbial life that could have existed in the planet’s once wet past; and collect samples of Martian rock and soil. The first images that Perseverance transmitted to Earth from the Octavia E. Butler Landing Site showed sprawling panoramas and whirling dust devils, a landscape that reminded me of the science fiction novels I read as a child.
Like all great explorers, Perseverance was accompanied by a companion. Ingenuity, a small rotorcraft that also achieved the planetary first of powered, controlled flight on another planet, zipped along with her and navigated the Martian surface.
I am an engineer who has the privilege of being part of NASA’s continued exploration of the red planet. Perseverance and Ingenuity are products of the sustained efforts of our team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. We have worked countless hours on this mission over the past several years and have overcome technical obstacles, personal struggles and even global challenges, all for the opportunity to write this next chapter in the story of human exploration.
Many paths and choices converged to make this groundbreaking moment happen for humanity, but it’s worth remembering that we each have our own stories of exploration. This year has afforded me many moments to reflect on mine and those of my family.
While I was born in Los Angeles, my parents and grandparents came to the United States from Mexico in the late ’60s and early ’70s. My grandparents were construction and factory workers, and they had a resolute desire for their children to get a good education. Several years ago, I brought my grandmother Antonia, or Nana Toñita, as I lovingly call her, to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for an open house. My grandmother always loved learning, especially about the universe, and she beamed as she watched our Earth-based robots roving outside and interacting with our visitors as we showcased our work. Afterward, with tear-filled eyes, she told me a story I will never forget.
Shortly after she and my grandfather arrived in the United States from Mexico, they both worked in the Garment District of Los Angeles. As undocumented immigrants, the need to make ends meet and the fear of being deported were constant challenges. One day, immigration authorities detained my grandparents and drove them to a processing center. My grandmother told me that on the way she vividly remembered listening to radio coverage of the Apollo astronauts and marveled at how surreal it was that humans were exploring the moon. I imagine that, so many years later, it felt just as surreal when she visited our lab. I kept that story close to me.
In February, as Perseverance plunged into the Martian atmosphere just seconds before landing, I looked at the faces of my family, who were there with me via Zoom. I was standing on their shoulders. As they cheered, my eyes welled up with tears. “Mija, ya llegamos a Marte,” my Nana Toñita said. “¡Somos exploradoras!” (“We made it to Mars. We are explorers!”)
I flashed back to her Apollo story, and everything came full circle. So many of us are products of immigrants like my grandmother, who believed that there was something more out there for them. Whether they came to America for more opportunities, education or safety, they bravely took those first steps into an unknown, intimidating world. They risked everything, and they faced the many challenges of being first. But through their struggles and successes, they marked a landing site for the next generation and created a path for us to follow and build upon. My grandmother had been my Pathfinder, and I was her Perseverance.
I have come to appreciate that humanity is more like our anthropomorphized robotic explorers than we perceive. Like us, they come from generations of explorers. On Mars, we stand on the foundations built in years past by Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit. Now Perseverance and Ingenuity push the boundaries of possibility.
Meanwhile, we will continue to weave our heritage, ideas and imaginations together. We will design and engineer new technology that helps us to better see what’s out there. We will continuously push forward toward a better tomorrow.
This article is illustrated by Luz María Martínez, who is a natural space environments engineer at NASA.
Christina Díaz Hernández is a payload systems engineer at NASA.