From the people who know Mars best, a collection of close encounters.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, August 2012
Whether it came during news coverage of the Viking missions more than three decades ago, or some time in the last six years, while the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been beaming back pictures like a slugger at batting practice, most of us have had a Mars moment—a few seconds of awareness that the planet is a real place and that, with the proper precautions, we could go there. In order to make the most of the next opportunity for contemplation, as the latest rover Curiosity begins its exploration of the planet (see “Emissary,” p. 18), we’ve asked people who have spent their careers studying Mars or have focused their creative energies on it to tell us about their encounters. We hope you’ll add to our little red book, by leaving your own “Mars moments” in the comments.
~ The editors
Gian Ori, planetary scientist, University d’Annunzio, Pescara, Italy. Director of the International Research School of Planetary Sciences.
Memorable moment: When Viking 1 landed and started to operate, I was in the Sahara desert. After several days of geological work in the middle of nowhere, we reached Tamanrasset, Algeria, at that time still a fabulous and exotic desert town. There, from an old TV set I was able to see the first images from the surface. What an impression: to be in a remote place in the largest desert of the Earth, seeing the most technological achievement of the time. This experience left a mark, and I am now studying Mars.
Biggest surprise: The incredible variety of geological settings, the complex geological history, and consequently, the great possibility of discoveries, now and in the future.
Human landing: My optimistic guess is 2035.
Scott Maxwell, rover driver, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Memorable moment: The first time I ever drove a Mars rover, Spirit. It wasn’t much of a drive, just a few meters. I obsessively checked and rechecked everything, and in the end I went home—and couldn’t sleep. I remember just lying in bed staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, thinking that at that moment there was a robot on another planet, doing what I told it to do. It’s got to be as close as I’ll ever feel to what it was like to be Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon at last.
Biggest surprise: I was unprepared for the fact that our two rovers would land in such different places. Spirit landed on the Mars you think of: Viking’s Mars, with a characteristic mix of rocks and dirt and distant hills. But Opportunity landed in a very different Mars: a parking lot, albeit one with some gigantic potholes (craters) and, later, speed bumps (ripples). Only recently, with its arrival at Endeavour Crater, has Opportunity begun to see yet another Mars, this one a mix of the terrain it’s seen before and something that looks just a bit like the Spirit side of the world.
Human landing: Landing humans on Mars has been 20 or 30 years away for the last 40 years or so. Unlike Apollo, bold talk is never followed up with hard cash. NASA has the engineering talent to turn that around, but there’s just not the political will in this country right now, and that hamstrings any effort, however well meant. All I know for sure is, if they’d put me on a rocket, I’d go.
John Grant, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, National Air and Space Museum. Co-chaired the community process that selected landing sites for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity.
Memorable moment: I recall seeing Viking images of the Martian surface as a teenager, and realizing that planetary exploration was real and something I could participate in. I will never forget the first time I viewed Mars in 3-D using HiRISE [camera] images [from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], and for the first time had the impression of what it might be like to actually stand on Mars.
Biggest surprise: The realization that there were once lakes on the surface. Although we’ve known about valleys and their relation to running water for some time, the identification of features requiring relatively large standing bodies of water is something that resonates with me. I grew up along the shores of Lake Champlain in New York, and that familiarity with lakes speaks to me about the possibility of habitable and more Earth-like conditions on Mars in the past.
Human landing: While I hope that humans will land on Mars in the next 20 years, I fear that it may take quite a bit longer.