We Can Persevere

Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division DirectorI am writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and our ongoing “social distancing” efforts. Rather than focus on how the pandemic is affecting NASA’s activities and the Planetary Science Division’s work, I instead want to take this opportunity to pause for thought amidst the chaos.

It is by now obvious that 2020 is bringing an enormous and unprecedented level of upheaval in our lives. Many of us are suddenly trying to juggle our work alongside increased childcare and other responsibilities. Others are living alone, with extremely limited amounts of social contact. Many are grappling with our own health concerns or those of loved ones. All of us are dealing with life and death on a daily basis. Yet we are all aiming to continue our work and our research even in these most trying of times. And although we are attempting to maintain as much normalcy as possible, some of you may well be reexamining your priorities. Indeed, it might be fair to question the need for planetary science during this time of adversity. I hope, therefore, to offer some words of encouragement, courtesy of a very special 13-year old.

On March 5, we announced the winner of a nationwide competition to name the Mars 2020 rover. In all, more than 28,000 K–12 students from across the United States submitted essay entries. With more than 770,000 votes cast online by the public, the entries were first whittled down to 155 semifinalists, then to 9, and finally to the winning name: Perseverance. The name Perseverance was submitted by 13-year-old Alex Mather from Springfield, Virginia, a seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary. As I look back now at his winning essay, Alex’s words and motivation were eerily prescient:

We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation, but as humans, will not give up. Even faced with bitter losses . . . the human race will always persevere into the future.”

We are all learning to adapt to our current, harsh situation, but as humans and as explorers we are persevering on our journey to Mars. Within the Planetary Science Division, and the Science Mission Directorate, launching Mars 2020 from Kennedy Space Center in July of this year remains a high priority. Although the vast majority of NASA’s workforce is currently adapting to a full telework lifestyle, the engineers whose work is critical to maintaining the Mars 2020 schedule are continuing their efforts apace. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Kennedy Space Center, and our other partners are going to extraordinary means to ensure the health and safety of all personnel needed to complete the hands-on work. As the coronavirus situation progresses, we’ll make adjustments as appropriate.

When asked, Alex explained that a trip two years ago to Space Camp in Alabama initially fueled his interest in space, and that he immediately knew that space was “something that I’m doing for the rest of my life.” I think Alex’s words are a timely reminder of the power of space and planetary science. In times of angst, such as those we are currently enduring, looking up and out to the cosmos is a salve that we all need. If nothing else, planetary science is the academic awareness that we on Earth are surrounded by something so much bigger.

So, if you’re finding yourself questioning the motivation for your work, I urge you to take a breath. Take a moment. Put yourself back in the mind of the 13-year-old you once were. For me, watching the development of the space shuttle program was a pivotal point in my life’s journey. What was that spark of inspiration that put you on the path to a career in planetary science? Remember that. Hold on to that.

And if merely reminding yourself of your original inspiration doesn’t feel enough, and you want to *do* something to help, I urge you to share your expertise and your enthusiasm with the public — young and old. The NASA At Home website, for instance, is an incredible resource for bringing the universe into everybody’s home. I hope that we can all find a way to connect virtually with the public — especially those students who have suddenly been ripped from their schools. Let’s try to wash away some distress and perhaps spark a lifelong interest in space, or science for the next generation of chemists, doctors, epidemiologists, and more, upon whom our survival as a race will depend.

The year 2020, so far, is not turning out the way we had anticipated. I very much missed the gathering of our community at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference that should have taken place a few weeks ago. There will be many more missed opportunities to catch up with friends, colleagues, and science over the coming months. Luckily, we are using the technological capabilities at our fingertips to mitigate many of these lost in-person connections. For many, however, 2020 will still feel like a year of mere grit. I hope, therefore, that the planned launch of Mars 2020 in July will serve as a moment of exhilaration for our community. With this mission as just one example of our community’s strength, I know that we can persevere.

— Lori S. Glaze, Director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division, April 2020