On Aug. 6, America did something incredible. We landed a rover on Mars.
It wasn't easy. At 1:17 a.m., the Curiosity rover initiated its landing sequence after more than eight months in flight. At the time, the Earth and Mars were approximately 154 million miles apart, which meant a radio delay of 14 minutes. If something went wrong -- a painfully real prospect considering the rover would be propelled into the planet's atmosphere at around 13,000 mph, slowed by rockets, air resistance, and a parachute, and lowered to the surface via a sky crane -- NASA wouldn't know until 1:32 a.m. As engineers congratulated one another upon hearing of Curiosity's flawless entry into the atmosphere, the good news could have been shattered by catastrophe at any moment.
Only, it wasn't.
Despite the hardship, despite funding amounting to no more than 0.5 percent of the federal budget, despite all that could have gone wrong along the way, from a malfunctioning thruster to a hole in the parachute, NASA landed a SUV-sized, unmanned space lab on the surface of a planet more than 150 million miles away. For a moment the world, distracted from the Olympics, stood in awe. Americans were reminded of what we can do if we only set our minds to it. But only for a moment.
Within days, coverage of NASA's incredible achievement dwindled. Harry Reid continued making his absurd, unsupported accusations that Romney has not paid taxes for 10 years. The Obama campaign bashed Paul Ryan the moment of his announcement as Romney's running mate, and the Republicans fired back with just as much vitriol. Negative campaign ads flooded August airwaves. Something remarkable may have occurred on Mars, but here on Earth, American politics were still a circus.
Indeed, on both sides the presidential election is being fueled by the worst elements of human nature: by fear, name-calling and divisive rhetoric. This is probably one of the most negative elections in our history, and it is being driven by exactly the opposite set of emotions that sent Curiosity to Mars.
The election's cynical tone is symptomatic of a wider, more serious problem. It suggests that the mindset that helped us fight Hitler or land a man on the moon is fading. We used to feel inspired by America, but now we feel disenchanted. We used to hope, but now we doubt. And rather than listening to leaders who unite us, too often we heed demagogues who profit from discord. Rather than striving to bridge the gap between our ideals and our reality, we have split into two camps: one group that praises our ideals and ignores our reality and another that emphasizes our reality and derides our ideals.
This cynicism is a cancer. It is more dangerous than any visible threat because it is killing us from within. In President Carter's words:
"The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation."
Unless and until this gap in the American spirit is filled, we will not solve our greatest problems. We will remain divided, lost, hopeless and cynical. We will continue to doubt our position as a world leader, and as a result the world will doubt this position as well. The American dream and all it offers will remain just that -- a dream -- for countless Americans. For the first time in our history, the next generation will be worse off than the previous one.
Curiosity's successful landing offers some hope, and it suggests that we should not be so cynical. A country that can pull off something like that is capable of solving anything. The audacity and ingenuity we've applied to the red planet can and should be applied to the blue one.
Yes, a lot is wrong with America, but a lot is right with it, too. By emphasizing the bad we lose sight of the good. In the process, we ignore our common interests and our problems seem unsolvable, our positions hopelessly disparate. We admit defeat before we've even tackled a problem.
We must adopt a different mindset. If we don't, the invisible threat will destroy us. Our cynicism will become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the worse, just as our Founders' idealism became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the better. America became great because people believed it could become great. The self-defeating mindset that has gripped so many young people, one where we reflexively deride everything from our politicians to our most cherished ideals, could have precisely the opposite effect.
We could learn more than just rocket science from NASA's engineers.