I hope I arrived on time...
"I hope I arrived on time..." NASA

The challenging operation of launching, directing, and landing Percy (a far better name for this "car-sized... rover" than Perseverance) on an alien world might have been a success in terms of human engineering and mathematical calculation, but it failed to obtain the maximum cultural effect. Percy's moment was missed by about two months or so.


This is not a one-to-one match, but the connection that partially explains the nature of this failure is found in a scene that Movie Clips calls the "Miracle Cease Fire." It happens late in one of the best science fiction films of this century's first decade, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men.

In the middle of an all-out urban battle between the British military and the refugees (blazing bullets, bursts of brick, booms and more booms, thrown rubble and more thrown rubble), the fighting suddenly stops because something that neither the soldiers nor the rebels have seen in nearly two decades is carried out of a bullet-riddled room, down some seriously distressed stairs, and outside of a bombed-out apartment building. That thing is a baby. A real, living baby. Humanity is supposed to be sterile at this point, but there it is: a baby. When the carriers of the miracle make it a little distance from the apartment building, the furious fighting resumes.

I'm of the opinion that the feeling the Mars landing moment expressed would have been partially captured if Percy landed on Mars in the months leading up to the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building.

The day Percy hit that useless Martian dirt, Texas was without electricity and freezing to death, the US was about to reach 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, and the country's stunningly slow vaccine rollout was losing the race against an increasing number of new and more dangerous variants of the virus. In short, the world, the growing reality of human-caused extreme weather events, the down-to-earth was much on the public's mind. A break to Mars had its oomph diluted by an administration and moment that was, when compared to Trump and his last days in office, as sober and as prosaic as dealing with a burst pipe.

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But the months after November 5, 2020, when it was clear that Trump's reelection bid was dead in the water, and it was also equally clear that he had it in mind to do everything within his power to stay in the White House—this period, which had lawsuit after lawsuit, more and more brazen attacks on the electoral college, and a clock ("...countdown to Armageddon") ticking on both the sides of the election results—this period of time was ripe to make the most of a Martian landing.

Mars gets its first helicopter...
Mars gets its first helicopter... Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But imagine if Percy had landed on Mars' totally useless and dust-everywhere-you-look surface on January 6. Imagine the difference that would have made on this, our only world, Earth. Would the Trumpists storming the Capitol Building have stopped for a moment and wondered at this undeniable miracle of human ingenuity (the 11 years of planning, the July 30 launch from Cape Canaveral, the long stretch of nothing-but-space, the mini-helicopter, the lights, the cameras, the action) in the way that the British soldiers stopped and marveled at that baby in Children of Men?

Maybe Trumpists are too dead inside for that to have happened. But much of the world would have stopped in the midst of the madness and seen in the space of chaos a completely different Mars. To use the words of the woefully underappreciated trip hop band from the 1990s, Alpha, the power Percy had to capture our imagination would have been in the simple fact that it was: "Somewhere, not here."