On Monday, August 6th, 2012, I got up four hours before the sun rose. I wasn’t due on post for another five hours, and I’d barely slept, but there was history to observe – and the warm comfort of my bed wasn’t going to keep me from witnessing it. I blindly silenced my phone’s alarm, slid out from beneath the sheets, and half stumbled down the stairs to my living room, where the laptop was already wired to the TV in preparation for my early morning show.
Thousands of miles away, scientists huddled around their computer screens, themselves connected to much larger screens than I could muster, but their anxiety about the events we were about to watch unfold was likely comparable to the differences in our viewing apparatus.
Millions of miles away, the Curiosity rover began its descent toward the Martian surface.
Because of Mars and the Earth’s respective locations in the solar system at the time, it took approximately fourteen minutes for a signal to travel at the speed of light from Curiosity to us, and as it began its descent, we would receive no signal at all for about half of that time – a period NASA’s team dubbed, “the seven minutes of terror.” During that window of time, anything could go wrong, allowing years of work, as well as billions of dollars, to disappear into the Martian landscape forever.
Although we here in the United States tend to think of these landers and other such missions as fairly routine, reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, historically, nearly half of all missions sent to Mars end in complete failure. On forty-four occasions to date, mankind has hurled the best of our technology at the red planet, and only twenty-two of them have garnered any level of success. Many of them didn’t even reach the orbit of Mars to begin the most dangerous leg of the trip: descent.
Seven minutes later, we learned that the pickup-truck-sized rover, the largest rover ever sent to another planet, had been resting peacefully on the Martian surface for fourteen minutes. The descent module had worked perfectly, and NASA continued their string of Martian successes, eclipsing both Soviet and later Russian efforts in planetary science once again. A few short years later, I would be courted by a large defense contractor for a regional position – and the part that won me over wasn’t their long list of military technologies currently in use, but the small component they supplied the Curiosity descent module, forever remaining on the surface of Mars as a testament to American ingenuity.
As I watched the scientists celebrate, I sipped an old Bud Light I’d left on my coffee table three hours earlier, in a toast to those men and women who had made that latest American accomplishment a success, when I heard my wife’s voice come from the stairs.
“Just imagine when we start visiting the rest of the planets…” She whispered groggily. The thing is, unbeknownst to many Americans, we already had.
Between 1961 and 1984, the Soviet government didn’t have its sights solely set on Mars – they were just as interested in Venus. The Venera series of probes were tasked with gathering data on our other closest neighbor. Thirteen probes successfully reached orbit around Venus, and ten of the Soviet’s hardened devices successfully landed on the surface to transmit data, and even pictures, from the hostile planet.
Unlike the American space program, the Soviet Union preferred to keep specifics regarding their space based operations a secret until deemed prudent to release them, and because of the fall of the Soviet block in the early nineties, data regarding these missions is still seen as sparse – much of it was simply lost to history, but Venera 13, sent back the first color photos of the Venetian surface; a Soviet accomplishment that would be repeated once with lesser success, and remains unmatched by any other nation to this day.
Because of the incredibly harsh environment found on the surface of Venus, the Soviet lander was designed with the most advanced hardening measures available at the time. Even that, however, could stand little chance against the extreme pressures produced by the runaway greenhouse gases in Venus’s atmosphere, and the coinciding temperatures that reach as high as eight hundred and seventy degrees Fahrenheit. The lander was purpose built to withstand these temperatures and pressures for thirty minutes before succumbing to the planet’s atmospheric grip, but managed to transmit for a whopping two hours.
It took four months for the Venera 13 to reach Venus, only to survive on its destination for a hundred and twenty or so minutes – but during that time it sent back fourteen color photos, eight more in black and white, and it drilled for a few soil samples which it analyzed internally. Another duplicate lander, the Venera 14, would be launched a mere five days later, but it would prove to survive only half the time of the first. That lander marked the last time a craft built on Earth would reach the surface of Venus to this day.
Throughout the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union continued to push the boundaries of what human technology was capable of, and their competition with one another surely drove both sides to heights that may have otherwise been considered impossible – but there’s a reason, even amid increasing American and Russian tensions, that our two space programs maintain a spirit of cooperation and mutual support. Here on Earth, our two nations will posture and compete for influence and control over fractions of our tiny blue dot hurling along in the vast expanse of space, but out there – where the very nature of the majority of existence means certain death for any human so unlucky as to experience it unprotected, we work shoulder to shoulder. In most of the universe, the enemy is the universe itself, and it takes the best of us, regardless of national origin, to survive enemy engagement.
I may bleed red, white, and blue – but when it comes to space, my scope of the “home team” has to grow. Soviet accomplishments, while less reported and even sometimes understood, like German rocket technology, must be seen as stepping stones toward a unified future, regardless of the ugly policies the governments in those counties championed at the time. Because the universe doesn’t care which flag you claim, and our wet little pebble of a planet isn’t big enough to choose teams.
That is, unless China wants to beat us to setting up a colony on Mars… In that event, I retract my statement and will promptly begin painting Old Glory on my chest and heading to Florida to watch our country beat yet another Red flag-waving rocket to pay dirt.
I can only be so reasonable.
Images courtesy of NASA