The reverberations from the epic touchdown of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars will extend far beyond the science and spaceflight communities, President Joe Biden said.
The commander-in-chief held a video call on Thursday (March 4) with scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages Perseverance's $2.7 billion mission. During the 10-minute chat, Biden congratulated and thanked the team for acing the Feb. 18 landing, stressing that it came at a crucial time for the nation.
"It's so much bigger than landing Perseverance on Mars," the president told JPL Director Mike Watkins, mission guidance, navigation and control operations lead Swati Mohan, and others on the call, which you can watch via C-SPAN. "It's about the American spirit. And you brought it back. You brought it back in a moment we so desperately needed."
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Biden then told a brief story. A head of state — he did not identify which one — told him recently that the U.S. just isn't what it used to be: "'They used to be so competent to do great things. And here they can't even deal with the coronavirus. Look how badly organized they are.' That was said by a head of state," Biden said.
Perseverance's dramatic sky-crane landing will help turn some of those negative impressions around, striking a blow for democracy in a world where autocracy is on the march, he added.
"There's a big battle going on. Your kids are going to be studying about when democracy once again re-established it can do anything, as opposed to autocracies that can just command things," Biden said. "I just can't tell you how much I believe historians are going to write about what you did at the moment you all did it."
"You should take such great pride, such great pride, in what you did," he said. "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."
Perseverance is just getting up and running on the floor of the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, which harbored a deep lake and a river delta billions of years ago. The car-sized robot's main tasks involve scouring Jezero rocks for signs of ancient Mars life and collecting and caching samples for future return to Earth, potentially as early as 2031.
In photos: NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission to the Red Planet
Biden seems to be up to speed on these goals. During Thursday's JPL call, he mentioned that he recently hosted a group from the House of Representatives to discuss infrastructure issues. One of the congressmen was impressed by the moon rock in the Oval Office, Biden said, "and I jokingly said, 'You ain't seen nothing yet. Wait 'til you see what comes home from Mars.'"
And Thursday's call wasn't Biden's first celebration of Perseverance's landing success. For example, he placed a congratulatory call to acting NASA chief Steve Jurczyk on Feb. 18, shortly after the rover touched down.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.