If you’re the sort of person inclined to visit my webpage, you were probably as excited as I was to see the Perseverance rover absolutely stick the landing in Jezero Crater on Mars this past week. It was a feat so monumental in scale and yet so flawless in execution that it really beggars any superlatives one can throw at it.
The American space program has come to be so adept at remarkable extraterrestrial achievements like this one, that it is difficult to recall a time when its supremacy in spaceflight was not only challenged, but outright eclipsed by those of the USSR.
I was reminded of that a mere few hours after the new rover’s arrival on martis firma, when I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a photo similar to the one you see in the bottom half of the image above. (The top half, as I’m sure you recognized, is Perseverance’s first view of Jezero.) The tweeter (twitterist?) was reminding all and sundry that long before Percy and his American predecessors arrived on the red planet, the Soviet Union’s Venera Program had managed the pretty astonishing trick of parking a series of landers on the fiercely inhospitable surface of Venus – eventually managing to send back images and even sound from Venera 13, all the way back in 1982.
As someone who has always been thrilled by space exploration and technology, I am deeply chagrined to admit that I never even heard of the Venera Program until now. (In my defense, I was kind of preoccupied with hair metal at the time.) But it serves as a reminder that the Russians were once world beaters when it came to cosmic pioneering. Theirs were the first human-made object in space (Sputnik); the first animal in space (Laika); first man in space (Yuri Gagarin); first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova); and first space walk (by Alexei Leonov), among other achievements. And all of that was before 1970! I encourage you to read the full article on Alexei Leonov, by the way. Talk about your Steely-eyed Missile Man.
I remember as a boy in the 60s, watching with fascination and awe as the full-on space race unfolded. Because the Soviet program was so secretive, their feats were always sprung on the world without warning – no doubt a great misery and frustration to the folks at NASA, who always thought they were preparing to take the lead, only to find themselves a step behind yet again.
But the Soviets never made it to the moon, at least not with human cosmonauts. Beginning a little more than a year after the Eagle landed, the first Russian Lunokhod rover touched down to begin its exploration of the moon. It is interesting to imagine how space exploration might have proceeded if the USSR had managed to keep pace with the Apollo program, or even beat the US to the moon. That’s the premise of the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind by Ronald D. Moore, the talented guy who also brought us Battlestar Galactica. It raises all sorts of intriguing alternative-history possibilities.
At any rate, when considering the changing fortunes that established the US as the clear leader in space exploration, it’s a worthwhile meditation to realize that nothing lasts forever, and there are aspirants to every throne. China has laid out details of a plan to land a human crew on the moon in the coming years; and on the 10th of this month – just a few days before Perseverance’s arrival – the Chinese Tianwen 1 spacecraft arrived in Mars orbit. It will attempt to land a rover on the planet’s surface, possibly as early as May.
The game is afoot once again.