WASHINGTON — When the White House called to congratulate NASA on the successful landing of the Mars rover Perseverance, acting administrator Steve Jurczyk new immediately it was the real deal.
“About an hour after landing, I got a phone call from the president of the United States, and his first words were, ‘Congratulations, man,’” Jurczyk recalled during a Feb. 18 press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I knew it was him. I wasn’t getting punked.”
Jurczyk said that President Biden said he was proud of the landing “and wanted me to send my regards to Percy.” He added that the president wanted to congratulate the team personally in some way. “We’re looking forward to having the president of the United States congratulate the team this week.”
Biden also tweeted out his congratulations to the agency for the landing of the one-ton rover on Mars. “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible,” he stated. “Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”
“Congratulations to NASA for today’s successful landing of Perseverance,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the House Science Committee, in a statement. “Seven months ago, we launched this rover full of hope and excitement. Today we sat through the famous seven minutes of terror as Perseverance fell through the atmosphere, slowing down so it could safely land.”
“Sending a car-size rover to plunge through the Martian atmosphere at speeds of over 12,000 miles per hour and execute a series of complex entry, decent, and landing procedures leading to a successful landing on the surface is no small feat,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, in a statement.
A few members of Congress had a front-row seat to the celebration. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, was at JPL, watching from a gallery overlooking the mission operations center.
“We saw evidence of how capable we are with technology, science and engineering,” he said in an interview shortly after the landing. “But there’s certainly a human aspect that you may not see if you read an article or see a space mission on television, to see the commitment, the pride, the effort of the members of this team at JPL.”
The successful landing by Perseverance may support NASA’s broader exploration efforts, including missions to the moon and long-term plans for human expeditions to Mars. “We are certainly interested in supporting further planetary exploration. We will have to balance that once again, as we do all the time, with the various missions of NASA,” he said. “I think that what happens at Mars does have a consequence to what happens at the moon, and vice versa. They go together.”
He cautioned, though, that those efforts will have to complete with other priorities, inside and outside of the agency. “We’ll have our work cut out for us with limited funds to garner the greatest level of support that we can, but also try to prioritize which missions are the most important,” he said. The success of Perseverance “will be a help in garnering support across Congress for the necessary funding.”
That prioritization was evidence in the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill Congress passed in December, which fully funded parts of NASA’s overall Artemis lunar exploration program, such as the Space Launch System and Orion, but provided only about a quarter of NASA’s requested funding for the Human Landing System program. That put the previous administration’s goal of returning humans to the surface of the moon by 2024 in jeopardy.
“I’m a supporter of the Artemis program, but we did make decisions that other things, in addition to Artemis, needed to be funded,” he said. “I’m anxious to see what the administration’s priorities are and anxious to know what the priorities are of a new administrator of NASA.” The White House endorsed the Artemis program in general Feb. 4, but not specifically the 2024 goal.
The landing of Perseverance had other benefits as well. “One takeaway for me today is that I keep looking for these moments in our country that bring us together in the political, cultural, citizenship kind of way, and inspire kids across our country to pursue careers in science, mathematics and engineering,” Moran said. “This was one of those days to pull the country together and inspire another generation of American scientists.”