Elsewhere in the solar system, a NASA rover is on its way to Mars. It carries, among other things, several pieces of spacesuit material. Designers want to see how the samples fare in the planet’s dusty, radiation-laden environment—the sturdy fabrics of the suit’s exterior, the cut-resistant fibers of its gloves, the shatterproof plastic of the bubble helmet that might someday reflect the soft light of a Martian sunset. When future astronauts arrive on the surface, the spacesuit designers back on Earth must be sure that they’re appropriately dressed for the occasion.
The rover lands in February. Those future Mars explorers—who knows?
Men managed to make it to the moon 50 years ago, and for years now, setting foot on the red planet has felt like the clearest next step. Someday, an astronaut might be hunched over a desk, a wastebasket full of crumpled paper nearby, trying to come up with the right words—something as good as Neil Armstrong’s famous line—before her spaceship lands on Mars. That landing, NASA has said, would come in 2033.
An Armstrong moment on Mars has always been far from guaranteed, but now, in this particular year of American history, that future feels further away than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has diminished all sorts of human endeavors, including space exploration, one of our dreamiest ambitions. “No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore,” the NASA administrator declared in April, when coronavirus cases were rising fast and the country’s response was already stumbling. Even in times like these, the leader of the only organization to send humans to another world has to believe that’s still possible, and on some level, he’s right; COVID-19 will not, in the end, stop humankind from someday reaching Mars. On the timelines required for space travel, a year, or more, of slowed activity counts as a small setback. But the exigencies of the pandemic still could influence America’s ambitions in the cosmos: The national impulse to reach for other worlds might be eroding.