Mission to Mars

By PHILIP EIL  |  September 4, 2013

 0906_mars_rover_top.jpg
HOT WHEELS An artist's concept of the Mars 2020 rover.

SO DID YOU CREATE THIS REPORT WITH FEASIBILITY AND COST IN MIND? Yes. It was very high in my mind, as the chair.

I said, “I do not want to . . .put the science aspirations for this mission out there and have it break the bank.” Because the Curiosity rover cost about twice as much as they thought it would. Instead of costing a billion dollars, which is what it was originally proposed at, it cost over two and a half. And that reverberates throughout NASA. Where are you going to get the money? You take it out of other space programs and then those elements of the program get really pissed and it affects your ability to do other things. So it’s not a really good idea.

So I said, “I’m not going to chair this if we end up breaking the bank . . . this is the cost bogey that we’re working with and let’s not exceed it.” We had lots of ideas. We could have gone well above it. [But] we said, “Let’s stay small.” So we create the cache.

To go back to your question, you said, “Aren’t you, like, leaving it dangling?” We are. It’s because there’s this tension between what NASA wants to do and what the president . . . is willing to accept, [and] what Congress will allow you to do. And then there’s something called the Office of Management and Budget, OMB, and they’re actually the gatekeeper. OMB played a huge. . . role in what we were able to put forward. Because they said, “Do not ever say that you are going to do the complete create-the-cache-and-bring-it-home, because that will cost too much money.”

We couldn’t say, “And you must return that cache . . .” because that would have obligated the US government to two additional missions. One future mission is to go there, grab it, and launch it, and the third mission is to grab what you launched and bring it home. And they said, “You can’t do that.” And we said, “Well, can we create a cache?” And they said, “Yeah, you can do that.”

SO, THIS WILL BE AN ARCHEOLOGY MISSION, IN SOME WAYS? I guess so. I think of it as [exploring] early life. “Astrobiology” is a good word for it.

Does life exist in the cosmos? This is a mission that will take us really far down that path, if we get the samples home. But before we get the samples home, we recommended that [the rover] make a series of measurements that will really take us farther down that path to really understand whether life existed, whether there [are] any signs of life in the rock record on Mars.

DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVER GO TO MARS? I would love to, but there’s no way. My son might go to Mars. He’s 20 months old. Because I think it might take about that long. Maybe it’ll be 15 years, maybe it’ll be 30. He’ll be just about the right age to go.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD GO? It would just be phenomenal to go there and do the type of traipsing around the surface and asking the questions that a field geologist would make on this planet.

I have so many questions. Being at some of the key spots . . . immediately with a rock hammer and a series of good instruments, we could make huge, huge progress in understanding. With all the rovers that have gone to Mars, none of them have had a rock hammer, which is kind of like your first tool. You wanna break open the rocks.

YOU AND I COULDN’T WALK AROUND ON THE SURFACE OF MARS WITHOUT PROTECTIVE SUITS, RIGHT? Correct.

WHY IS THAT? The atmosphere is about 1/100th the pressure that we have. So it’s a very, very, very thin atmosphere. And the other thing is it’s made 95 percent [of] carbon dioxide. So it would be unbreathable. So you [would] just expire pretty quickly. And the pressure is so low that you’d probably develop blisters. Your blood vessels would pop. It would be ugly.

SO IT REALLY IS LIKE THE NIGHTMARE FROM ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER’S TOTAL RECALL? Yeah, I think they were on track there. That’s what’s gonna happen. You’re just going to like burst.

ARE WE STILL IN A “SPACE AGE”? WHAT ERA ARE WE IN NOW? There’s some who say the golden age of space exploration — which is that first phase, kinda like when Magellan went around the planet or Columbus came to [America] — that’s the exploration phase. But then following Columbus’s first voyage, there were lots of people, like [Giovanni da] Verrazano, for whom the bridge across Narragansett Bay is named. He was also an explorer, but post-Columbus. So Columbus gets all the headlines, but there are many, many further explorations that happened.

So, are we in an age of exploration? We are. We’re in a different phase of it. And we’re going after the tough, really exciting questions which are a little harder to answer.

That’s where I say, “How come we don’t just send a life-detection experiment to Mars? And [be] done with it?” Well, if I were to [say to] you, “OK, here’s an instrument. Go home and tell me that there was once life in your house,” it’s actually kind of a difficult measurement to make, in a robotic sense.

Or I said, “Here’s a rock hammer. Go tell me that there once was life on the Earth.” It’s kind of hard to find the spot where you would say, “Ah, there! That’s the evidence in the rock record that there was life a billion years ago.” That takes a lot of work.

And to do that on another planet that’s the exact same land mass as the Earth, how do you choose what site to go to? It’s a process. The first steps have been done. Now to get at the big questions, we’ve got to delve a little deeper.

WE’VE GOT SO MANY PROBLEMS IN SOCIETY DEMANDING OUR ATTENTION AND MONEY: POVERTY, HUNGER, VIOLENCE . . . THE LIST GOES ON. HOW DO YOU MAKE THE ARGUMENT FOR SPACE EXPLORATION IN 2013? To me, this is among the most inspirational, thought-provoking activities that the human race can do. That’s been a hallmark of the great feats of humanity. . . to challenge oneself to do more and to go beyond and to create. And to me this is among the most phenomenal types of creativity we can do, from the science perspective.

You think about the great artists in the world and [how] they’ve created, out of nothing, remarkable works. They’re inspirational. And I can say to myself, “Well, why do we spend money on art? . . . It doesn’t further our economy. It doesn’t put food on the table.” By god, it inspires! It’s emotional. And it connects us as humans. And I think the same thing about space exploration. It just satisfies that urge to achieve.

The other argument you can make is, “What percent of the US budget is actually directed toward space exploration?” It’s a big number: $17 billion. But it’s like a $1.7 trillion budget. So it’s like one-tenth of one percent. I mean it’s a tiny amount of money. Yet, to me, the way it brings chills to kids when you talk to them and say, “Look what we did.” The eyes go wide and they think, “We did that? I can do that.” It’s a foundation of humanity.

To learn more about the Northeast Planetary Data Center, go to www.geo.brown.edu/BrownNASADataCenter. The Science Definition Team’s “Mars 2020” report is available at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mars2020.

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