Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. “Touchdown Confirmed!”: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars
2. Texas Power Grid Collapse Foreshadows Larger Problems in USA
3. Paul Rusesabagina, Hero of Hotel Rwanda, Faces Trial
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Agence France-Presse
“Touchdown Confirmed!”: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars
At 3:55pm on Thursday, Feb. 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover completed a treacherous landing on Jezero Crater, Mars, bringing us one step closer to determining whether life ever existed on Mars.
The landing process was nerve-wracking; during the “seven minutes of terror,” the Perseverance team could not communicate with the rover because radio signals take 11 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars. When the spaceship finally landed, the NASA control room erupted in applause, as did many millions across the world who were watching along online.
The mission marks a number of firsts: the first helicopter to fly on Mars, the first recording of Martian sounds, and the first attempt to transfer material back to Earth through an interplanetary grab-and-go taking place with a later European rover.
The success of Perseverance’s landing was far from guaranteed: lockdowns threatened an unmovable July launch date, the rover was NASA’s heaviest yet, and it touched down at a site thought too risky for its predecessors.
1. Why do we think there might be life on Mars?
Over the past six decades, everything we’ve learned about Mars suggests it could have once hosted life. (Ironically, actually finding life may be a bad omen for the future of the human race.)
The Curiosity rover, which landed on Gale Crater in 2012, found that Mars once housed water; has methane on its surface; and contains sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. NASA explains these are “key ingredients necessary for life,” and finding them suggests that “ancient Mars had the right chemistry to support living microbes.”
Satellite images also suggest that the red planet had ancient river deltas. Scientists see these areas as promising above-ground candidates for signs of life, theorizing that water could have sustained chemical reactions and even microbes. Perseverance will search one of these deltas with the most powerful tools yet, looking for preserved signs of life in lakebed and shoreline sediments.
2. Is this rover, and NASA more generally, worth it?
Many critics of funding NASA argue that it comes at the expense of solving problems on Earth. However, NASA has a number of benefits that collectively outweigh the opportunity cost:
First, NASA likely saves taxpayers money. The agency has developed more than 2,000 “spin off” innovations, including prosthetic limbs, light-emitting diodes used to treat cancer, and CMOS image sensors. It also provides the technical and logistical support on which other technologies rely; just their contribution to GPS infrastructure could generate benefits of more than double the agency’s budget. UC Irvine Professor Greg Autry thus writes that “every dollar that our nation has spent in space… has been paid back,” often “multi-fold.”
Second, NASA protects against catastrophes. In addition to tracking asteroids that could pose existential risks and researching how to avoid them, it also explores potential future homes for our species. While establishing extraterrestrial civilizations may sound far-fetched, the potential benefits to expanding humanity’s reach and foothold beyond Earth are immense, as philosophers such as Oxford’s Nick Bostrom argue.
Third, NASA provides something more intangible. A sense of shared purpose and hope that’s become increasingly elusive. Insight into huge existential questions. Inspiration for youth to explore STEM. These benefits are less quantifiable, but no less important.
Some NASA skeptics contend that private companies like SpaceX can do the agency’s work more efficiently, saving taxpayer money. However, if anything, their progress may strengthen the case for NASA: these companies have no monetary incentive to freely share their data or discoveries like NASA, and their competitive pressure could catalyze a “public-private space race” improving future NASA missions.
Whether life has existed, or still exists, beyond Earth is one of humanity’s greatest questions. Perseverance brings us just a bit closer to discovering the answer.
Electric service trucks line up in Fort Worth, Texas on February 16, 2021. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
Texas Power Grid Collapse Foreshadows Larger Problems in USA
Early last Monday, amidst a historic freeze, the Texas power grid found itself “seconds and minutes” away from near total collapse. Had a blackout of this magnitude happened, almost all of Texas would have lost heat and power for months—an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
Thankfully, the worst outcome was narrowly avoided. Yet what actually happened was not much better. Widespread blackouts left 4 million Texans without power and at least 26 people dead. Thousands remain with no running water and countless others are struggling to find shelter and food.
Things could have gone differently had decisions made decades ago not left Texas infrastructure woefully unequipped to deal with the cold weather.
In 1999, the Texas legislature privatized the state’s power grid, creating a patchwork grid of competing providers, each trying to deliver energy for the lowest price possible. The market discouraged costly investments for the future—especially for unlikely but potentially catastrophic events like a freezing winter in Texas. As a result, power lines were left without insulation, and wind turbines were built without de-icing technology.
ERCOT, the non-governmental regulatory body for Texas’ power grid, failed to mandate reserves of extra energy in case of emergencies. Moreover, to avoid federal regulation, Texas long ago isolated itself from regional power grids, limiting their ability to import electricity from other states during times of crisis.
In normal times, these deregulatory measures made Texas one of the cheapest states in the energy market. But in the event of a rare (though not unprecedented—see 2011) winter storm, Texas’ failure to winterize their grid took dozens of lives, cost taxpayers tens of billions, and straddled many customers with thousands of dollars in energy bills amidst surging demand.
1. What does this mean for the rest of the United States?
It is easy to paint what happened to Texas this week as simply a consequence of the state’s unique history as the “Lone Star Republic,'' and their associated distaste for government regulations.
But in truth, almost every other state in the Union is vulnerable to comparable disasters, due to climate change and the increased frequency of heat waves and cold snaps. The outages caused by last week’s winter storm went far beyond Texas, leaving many residents in Louisiana and Oklahoma without electricity and heat. And nationwide extreme weather events have increased major power outages across the United States by 67% since the year 2000.
Many of these failures are due to the fact that at the time most of our key infrastructure was built, it was assumed that future climate conditions would largely mirror those of the past. This was obviously incorrect.
2. How do we avoid future disasters, and address the vulnerabilities of our power grids?
Current infrastructure needs to be updated or, in some cases, rebuilt to ensure it can withstand new environmental pressures.
In the case of our power grids, many have begun to call for a national energy network— a plan supporters claim will create jobs, make our grids more resilient to storms, and allow more reliance on renewable energy sources.
Advocates for a national system point to the interstate highway system—in which interstate roads are federally funded and subject to certain national regulations, but owned by states—as a model for future infrastructure efforts. By connecting the Eastern, Western, and Texas energy grids, the U.S could create an interconnected national network.
Beyond climate change, increasing the resilience of our energy supply will be key to defending the U.S against some of our greatest national security threats. The NSA has long warned power grid operators of an increased likelihood of cyber attacks from adversaries like Russia and China.
In 2019, the first-ever cyber attack on the US grid managed to create small blind spots at a grid control center in the Western U.S. Later, the massive Solar Winds attack infected over 15 energy and manufacturing entities with malware, potentially compromising vital infrastructure. These attacks are likely to increase as technology becomes more advanced. We must do all we can to protect our power grids from foreign attack.
Ultimately, we must ensure that American energy infrastructure is prepared to withstand the environmental and technological challenges the next generation will face. If not, the heavy human and monetary costs of this week’s blackouts in Texas may pale in comparison to those of the future.
Rusesabagina awaits trial with the co-accused at the Supreme Court in Kigali, Rwanda, on Wed, Feb. 17.
Credit: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP, africanews
Paul Rusesabagina, Hero of Hotel Rwanda, Faces Trial
On February 17th, Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda fame went on trial in his home country of Rwanda. The government of Paul Kagame charged him on nine counts, including terrorism and supporting conspirators who plotted to overthrow Kagame’s regime in 2018 and 2019. As manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines in 1994, Rusesabagina saved the lives of 1,268 Tutsis during the Rwandan Genocide. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.
Rusesabagina renounced his Rwandan citizenship in 1996, becoming a Belgian citizen instead. Rwanda claimed independence from Belgium in 1962.
On August 29th of last year, Rusesabagina was on his way to Burundi from Dubai when members of Kagame’s staff—secretly onboard his private jet—illegally rerouted the plane to Rwanda. He has been awaiting trial ever since. Rusesabagina has claimed that he is being held hostage and has urged for his trial to be continued in Belgium.
1. Is there any truth to these charges?
There is evidence on both sides. However, regardless of the actual validity of the charges, Rusesabagina is unlikely to receive a fair trial.
On the one hand, Rusesabagina was a leader of a coalition of exiled opposition groups that includes a militant wing. He has pledged his “unreserved support” and admitted to contributing money to a group that claimed responsibility for a number of attacks near the Burundian border. In a now widely-circulated address, Rusesabagina called on Rwandans “to use any means possible to bring about change” and “to attempt our last resort”; he later dubiously claimed this was a call for diplomacy, not violence.
On the other hand, Rusesabagina was abducted by a regime with a track record of “disappearing” and imprisoning political opponents. Human Rights Watch and the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights both argue the Rwandan government has violated international law in this case, and 31 bipartisan members of Congress as well as the EU have condemned their actions. And there remain “grave concerns” that he will not receive a fair trial.
2. What has happened in Rwanda since the Civil War?
Rwanda has continued to face serious challenges, with civil rights proving elusive in spite of economic success.
Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current President, rose to power after leading a rebel group that defeated Hutu extremists in 1994. Kagame’s militia, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, helped end the Rwandan Genocide, overthrowing the sadistic Hutu authorities that massacred more than a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Kagame has since overseen economic development and remains popular, but has ruled as a ruthless authoritarian with flagrant disregard for political freedom. Human Rights Watch details the dire situation here.
The only way forward for this nation still reeling from tragedy, write Professors Noel Twagiramungu and Joseph Sebarenzi, is developing a true multi-ethnic democracy with checks and balances and fair elections in the mold of post-aparteid South Africa. Hopefully, the illegal imprisonment of a former national hero in Rwanda will focus the world’s attention on the East African country and spur change from within the embattled nation.