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Look, it’s been a god-awful week. Winter storms have caused power outages and chaos from Oregon to Texas. Reply All cohost PJ Vogt and others stepped down following accusations of a toxic culture at Gimlet Media. Unemployment is still on the rise. And that’s just skimming off the top of the crap heap. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a ton of pop culture to offer distraction beyond new trailers for Mortal Kombat and Cruella. TV also looked sparse, except for one thing: the Mars rover landing.
It’s possible that the idea of traveling to outer space is even more fantastical when, these days, so few of us leave our neighborhoods, but truly watching the zenith of the Perseverance mission had all the ingredients of must-see TV. For one, there was a lot of anticipation. The Atlas V rocket transporting NASA’s latest Mars rover launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in July and has spent the past six months en route to the Red Planet. It also had cool gadgets: Perseverance is a nuclear-powered 2,300-pound rover tasked with searching the martian landscape for signs of ancient microbial life. Put another way, it’s an “alien-hunting self-driving car,” and for the hour-plus that NASA teased its descent on its livestream, it did so using interviews with super-enthusiastic (read: delightfully nerdy) scientists and animations that looked like something out of The Expanse. So sci-fi!
A Covid-19 angle? The Perseverance live show had that, too. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had to start teleworking back on March 12 of last year and has been doing its work under Covid safety protocols ever since. (Rocket scientists—they’re just like us!) It also had a special cameo: a microphone designed to capture the sounds of life on Mars, something no previous probe has done.
But the real thing that made the landing super suspenseful is that it literally promised “seven minutes of terror.” As the rover approached Mars yesterday, its supersonic parachute slowed its descent, and its “sky crane” dropped it into place. Watching it happen was incredibly nail-biting. Literally. I lost two nails. It was a lot of watching scientists watch screens, but seeing their enthusiasm and nervousness as years of their work flung itself through space was about as gripping as it gets. Ron Howard could never.
Perhaps the excitement is just a byproduct of the fact that, for me at least, the kind of human joy on display at JPL after the rover touched down is something that, frankly, hasn’t been seen in a long time. Or perhaps it’s getting a glimpse of a room full of government employees, all wearing masks—most of them even double-masked—working together to solve a problem. Either way, something about watching it happen live just clicked. For months now, fiction—whether in the form of movies, books, or TV—has been an escape when watching the news got to be too much. For six minutes on Thursday, existence on Earth got a little more wondrous, by offering a glimpse into life somewhere else.
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