Science captured the front pages last week.
Perseverance, the Mars explorer, made landfall Thursday. The module landed on target in Jezero crater, 30 miles across, 300 million miles from Earth. Let me put that in perspective. Imagine you are teeing up at hole one of your favorite golf course. You select your club and take aim at the hole, a cozy 195 miles away. If you could launch a golf ball that distance, the size of the hole would be proportionately the same size as the target Perseverance was aiming at. The target was also revolving around the sun at around 55,000 miles an hour, while you and your tee were spinning at closer to 77,000 mph. Oh, sure, the rocket soaring across the millions of miles could make course corrections — but if those corrections were off-target by as much as a foot per mile from launch, Perseverance would miss the landing by nearly 57,000 miles. Quite literally, there was absolutely no margin of error for the rocket to land successfully on Mars.
The numbers are kind of hard to wrap your mind around, but the magnitude of the achievement isn’t. It’s truly a remarkable accomplishment by NASA scientists and engineers. When talented technical experts do their work without political interference, remarkable things happen.
For many years, experts working in the field of climate science have warned us of the dangers of global warming. One consequence is the increase in the rate of monstrous storms in both summers and winters. Last week’s disastrous weather in Texas is an example of what we can expect: when the atmosphere heats up, it’s capable of holding more water vapor. Also, warm air is less dense than colder air. In winter, cold air and the steering currents that control them are able to drop further south, because temperatures in regions that would normally be cooler are still warm — and moist. When that hot and humid air chills, it loses the ability to retain moisture. And just like your bathroom mirror after a shower, the water condenses and falls. So, you get snow. Texas got a lot of it, for which it was forewarned, but not forearmed. The 2011 Valentine’s Day Storm put Texas on notice that it had to get to work modernizing its energy grid. The state did not, and when that inevitable next massive chill and blizzard came, the results were predicable — and predicted. We ignore the science at our own peril.
Texas is a microcosm of the larger problems of our infrastructure. Major crises like last week’s storm or Flint, Michigan’s unsafe water supply capture our attention. Those situations require us to respond with immediate, extensive, and costly fixes. We are not so good at investing the resources we need to prevent those large crises. Infrastructure is more than roads, electrical grids, communications networks, and airports. It includes the systems we need to protect the population’s health and educate our children. In the broadest sense, fixing our nation’s infrastructure is more than being able respond to the crisis of the day. We need to prepare for a future that looks nothing like today. Global warming is real. We can try to build structures able to withstand level-5 hurricanes. That won’t help with level-6 storms we’re seeing now, even if we don’t call them that yet.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed deep weaknesses in our health system’s infrastructure. Even with the remarkable breakthrough in developing and being able to produce prodigious amounts of vaccines for that illness, people can’t get inoculated. Production and distribution of the vaccines should be pretty routine, but it’s not. Some areas have far less vaccine than they need for their populations. Many areas had monumental failures in their systems for making appointments to get vaccinated.
Those unfortunates who got sick enough to require hospitalization ran into different problems with our infrastructure: many hospitals and regions just ran out of ICUs for severe cases; it was just 2 months ago that the Baltimore Convention Center was being used to hold patients. And last year, we remember the shortages in PPE, masks, and surgical gowns. I will not comment on the Trump administration’s role in exacerbating those problems last year.
One could say that the COVID-19 pandemic is an exceptional problem, so far out of the ordinary that none could have anticipated it. The same was said about last week’s weather in Texas, too. But we had warnings of both and ignored them. We need to address these and other problems in our society’s infrastructure. A pretty smart guy named Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Alas, that is also true for the finances required to solve them.
Mitch Edelman, vice chairperson of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee, writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.