Dinnertime conversation at the Bergen family table, now that we are a year into our COVID constrained lives, does not always sparkle. The other night, however, the exchanges were crisp and lively. The big talk in class that day for the elder two children had been the touchdown of the Perseverance rover on Mars. They traded details – the “seven minutes of terror,” a critical period just before touchdown that would determine whether the multi-billion dollar mission would continue, or whether the rover would settle on a ledge, tumble off and land in a useless heap; the seven month voyage to reach the planet – with the excitement that I remember from my youth, the era of the Space Shuttle missions and our nation’s pride, the Canadarm.

Safely landed on Mars, the Perseverance rover’s mission now is largely geological field work, which should also have a few CIM Magazine readers likewise animated. The assignment is to explore the surface below and around what is believed to have once been a lake for markers of ancient microbial life. Those signs will come from detailing the structures of the area and gathering samples for eventual transport back to Earth, a task that one NASA scientist declares will be “one of the most ambitious feats ever undertaken by humanity.”

The samples collected will ideally help tell a story of how the area formed, what sort of life it may have hosted and how it changed over time. And with limited space on the return voyage, they will need to do so as efficiently as possible. The array of cameras, lasers and spectrometers will be the earthly crew’s eyes, ears, rock hammer and drill, taking the choicest core samples the size of a pencil stub and pulling more data from interesting targets beyond the drill’s reach.

At the same time, ground-penetrating radar will be probing beneath the surface to give us further geological insights into the planet. Given that today we continue to develop novel industrial uses and to discover ancient lost cities using LiDAR technology that was first deployed on space missions a half century ago, it is exciting to consider what applications this new generation of tools will find back on Earth long after the Perseverance program has run its course. And, this is without going into the toaster-sized prototype also delivered to Mars in February that has been designed to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbon monoxide and oxygen – that essential element for terrestrial life, rocket fuel and potential human missions to the planet. 

The Perseverance mission is a stunning achievement for NASA, not just for the science and engineering at its core, but for how well its marketing and communications apparatus promotes and celebrates it, sharing the nerdy details in varying degrees of specificity depending on the intended audience, drawing out the human stories behind the massive project, and being careful to bring as many people – kids and adults – along for the voyage as possible. While we may not all be blessed with a one-year operating budget of US$22.6 billion, we as an industry would do well to adopt not just the technology NASA sends out into space, but the care it takes in bringing people along for the ride.