Perseverance Makes First Drive, Biden is Enthused

Perseverance Makes First Drive, Biden is Enthused

NASA shared images today of tire tracks on Mars made by the Perseverance rover, which took its first drive yesterday, two weeks after landing. Also yesterday, President Biden made good on a promise to call the Perseverance team and thank them personally. He once again enthused about the mission as lifting the spirits of a beleaguered world and showing that nothing is impossible if people work together.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA manages the program and controls the rover.  It held a press conference today to highlight Perseverance’s “firsts,” but a video at the end stole the show. Interspersing footage of the spacecraft’s descent and landing on Mars taken by cameras on the vehicle and later beamed back to Earth with joyous reaction from the control team at JPL and in living rooms and elsewhere around the world, it is an uplifting tonic for a Friday afternoon.

The press conference also was very interesting (scroll to 5:20 where it begins). Perseverance’s tracks in the Martian dust are clearly visible and lots of other information and images were presented.

It certainly seems that apart from the Perseverance team itself, no one is more excited about the mission than Biden.

Yesterday he fulfilled a promise made to Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk on February 18, landing day, to personally congratulate the Perseverance team.  It was a virtual call between the Oval Office and Pasadena covered by C-SPAN.

He was particularly delighted to talk with Swati Mohan, the Guidance and Control Lead who provided moment-by-moment commentary as the spacecraft went through the entry-descent-and-landing sequence. She is of Indian descent and Biden excitedly exclaimed Indian-Americans “are taking over the country–you, my Vice President, my speechwriter, Vinay.  I tell you what.  But thank you.”

Biden repeatedly called it an “honor” to speak with the Perseverance team and praised the psychological boost the mission is providing to a weary country.

We can land a rover on Mars.  We can beat a pandemic.  And with science, hope, and vision, there’s not a damn thing we can’t do as a country.  We have never, ever, ever failed to meet a goal.  We’ve set our mind to it, and we’ve done it together.  And that’s what you all showed.  So it goes way beyond — way beyond the whole notion of what you just recently did.

I tell you what: I just wanted to thank you and tell you, you know, you — it just seems that, you know, we’re on the side of the angels.  Just at the moment when things look like they’re really dark in America over our history, something has come along.  Something has come along.  And you guys came along and you did this.

And so I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and tell you how presumptuous of me to say I’m proud of you, but I am so proud of you.  And — and, Mike [Watkins, JPL Director], the teamwork that still exists there, the importance of it, the consequence of what you’re doing — and it’s only just the start.  — President Biden

Perseverance is the first of three missions that will return samples of Mars to Earth. Perseverance itself will collect samples and leave them on the surface in cigar-shaped tubes.  A NASA/ESA Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve them later this decade and launch them into orbit around Mars where an ESA/NASA Earth Return Orbiter will bring them home around 2031.

This is the fifth time Biden has publicly cheered what he sees as the potential of Perseverance and the Mars Sample Return project overall to show how people can work together to achieve what may seem impossible.  After calling Jurczyk on landing day, he spent a fair percentage of his speech to the Munich Security Conference the next day using Perseverance and the Mars Sample Return project as an example of trans-Atlantic cooperation. The day after that the White House released a video of his call with Jurczyk intertwined with video of the landing.  He brought Perserverance up again when visiting Houston on February 26.

As it turns out, his enthusiasm is not confined to public speeches. In a private meeting this week with members of Congress who came to discuss infrastructure, someone noticed the Moon Rock Biden has on his bookcase in the Oval Office and asked if it was real. As Biden recounted in his phone call yesterday, he said yes, and wait until you see what comes back from Mars.

I had a group of folks in my office not too long ago — House and Senate members — I mean, House members — Democrats, and Republicans — talking about infrastructure.  And I have in the — on the shelf in my Oval Office, a moon rock.  And they walked over and said, “This is actually a moon rock from the moon?”  And I jokingly said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.  Wait until see what comes home from Mars.” — President Biden

The Mars Sample Return mission is quite expensive. Perseverance cost $2.4 billion excluding operations. The Sample Fetch Rover and Earth Return Orbiter will cost upwards of $4.4 billion for NASA’s part according to an Independent Review Team and that does not include funding needed to build a biologically secure facility to store the samples once they are here on Earth. ESA expects to spend another 1.5 billion Euros for its portion. They want to launch both spacecraft in 2026, so the money will be needed in a hurry.

Congress supports Mars Sample Return and allocated money specifically for it for FY2021, but a lot more will be needed in the next four years to meet a 2026 launch date.  Time will tell how the Biden Administration and Congress figure out how to pay for it — by increasing the total amount available to NASA, or forcing cutbacks to other programs.

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