As a contrast in extremes, last week’s extraordinary developments in space and the southern United States take some beating. At the very moment Nasa’s Perseverance rover scored a technological triumph with its flawless landing on the surface of Mars, millions of American citizens in Texas were thrust back into a chaotic, pre-industrial dark age of no electricity, no water and, for some, no food by unprecedented freezing temperatures.
Many lessons may be drawn from the confluence of these two events, positive and negative. The performance of the Perseverance mission is frankly breathtaking. Having travelled the 38.6m miles from Earth – measured by Mars’s closest approach in 2020 – over seven months, the rover touched down without any apparent damage to its sophisticated scientific equipment and cameras.
The landing marks the beginning of a new era of space exploration in which rocks from the red planet will be returned to Earth for the first time. Nasa’s photos of the descent are a marvel in themselves, and may become as celebrated as those of the first Moon landing. From its base in the Jezero crater, Perseverance will begin to offer answers to age-old questions about space – including one of the biggest of all: was there (or is there) life on Mars?
What a success for science, for technology, and for the people who designed and built Perseverance. As one excited Nasa controller said: “This shows what we can do when we all work together.” Indeed it does. That’s a lesson worth holding on to as selfish commercial and nationalistic instincts fracture the global fight against Covid-19. Last week’s G7 leaders’ meeting reached a similar conclusion. It bears constant repetition.
The misery and mayhem in Texas and neighbouring states show what can happen when that lesson is ignored. The Lone Star state is one of the wealthiest in the US, itself one of the wealthiest nations. Texas is famous for its bountiful energy resources and big-hatted, big-hearted oilmen. So how could a few days of admittedly extreme weather create such a startling breakdown, leaving millions in need and many dead?
One obvious answer is global heating and the climate crisis, which last week produced considerably higher temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska, than in Austin, Texas. Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor, can carry on denying that climate is a factor if he must. At one point in the crisis, he blamed blackouts on frozen wind turbines, even though they accounted for only 13% of outages. Ever fewer people believe him. That, hopefully, is another lesson learned.
The virtual collapse of many of Texas’s life support systems – water supply pipelines, food distribution networks and natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants were all temporarily knocked out – speaks to a bigger, ongoing national failure to invest in critical infrastructure. This is partly the result of repeated Republican tax and budget-cutting. In 2016, Donald Trump said he would fix the problem. He didn’t. Joe Biden promises to do so.
Texan travails have also highlighted inequality. In Houston, less well-off residents complained of sudden, unaffordable rises in rents and water and gas charges as price-gougers took advantage. The shameful decision by Ted Cruz, the millionaire Republican Texas senator and Capitol Hill insurrectionist, to head for warmer climes in Mexico dramatically symbolised this gulf.
It’s ironic that Texas Republicans, normally so keen on self-reliance, political autonomy and state’s rights, are now welcoming financial aid from Washington. Abbott has asked Biden to declare a “major disaster”, making the state eligible for federal funds. It would also “allow eligible Texans to apply for assistance to help address broken pipes and related property damage”. It seems that central, unified government has its uses after all.
Biden will offer personal reassurance to Texans in a visit this week. As this moment of extreme national triumph and tragedy, working together works.