Set in the midst of the first half of the 1980’s, around the troubling time of my parent’s divorce, and living in rather rural parts of Indiana and Kentucky near Cincinnati, I developed an interest in Space. I don’t know exactly when it happened, or what inspired it, but by the time the Challenger accident occurred in January 1986, I was hooked. That interest grew as the years went by. Rather than music band or movie posters on my bedroom walls as a teenager I had pictures of the planets and of the shuttle. With an aptitude for mechanical things and my interest in space exploration, I went to college for Aerospace Engineering. By that time my interest was fully beyond the shuttle; I was interested in the exploration of Mars. I developed a goal to attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina where I had read about a Mars Mission Research Center located there. I had been bitten by the Martian Bug.
Why Mars? Good question. I really didn’t have a good answer an answer at the time. If asked I probably would have said “Because it’s the next giant leap for mankind, and it’s cool.” Twenty years later I still stand by that reason, but now I understand there is much more to it than that. Still, “the next giant leap” does have a nice ring to it. It draws on my sense of adventure and exploration, as it would for most anyone. We are familiar with this kind of reason. Its kin are the reasons that drive us to top the highest mountains and deepest oceans here on Earth. However, there are other, more tangible reasons to be interested in the exploration of the Red Planet.
When early Mariner flybys captured pictures of the surface of Mars all hope of finding lush vegetation and water filled canals were finally put to rest. The surface of Mars is cold and barren. It’s barren of large scale organic matter that, on earth, would aid in break down of rock and whose life and death cycles create soil that builds over time. In short, Mars is a nearly pristine planet where windows into its past are open for us to look through. Billions of years of planetary evolution can be read in its features as nothing has decomposed, changed or buried them except the wind. Wind has sand blasted the land for eons. As a result some low lying areas are filled with sand. It’s going to take some work to find out what lies under it. Mars offers a fantastic opportunity to advance our understanding of the creation and evolution of planets.
No discussion about going to Mars can be possible without mentioning the search for life. In 1996 a team of scientist studying meteorites that we believe originated from Mars found what looked for all the world like microscopic worms. As you might expect with such an announcement, it was met with very close scrutiny. In the end a shadow of doubt was cast on these results. The discovery of life of any kind and located in any place on Mars would fundamentally change our perspective on the universe. Think about it. Religious or not, our view of the heavens would be altered forever. If life could independently develop on two planets in the one solar system the it could very well exist on planets orbiting other stars waiting to be explored. Evolution from worm to tool using, analytically minded alien beings seems almost inevitable to occur somewhere once you’ve proven life is possible outside of the Earth. Looking into the night sky you would be seeing not only other planets, but other civilizations.
There you have it. Mars is far more than the next Everest or South Pole. It is quite possibly the key to understanding the most basic questions we have: How did our planet, and life teaming everywhere on it, evolve?
Wow, that’s deep. So where does that leave little ol’ me and my career? Plans change, as they almost always do, and I never went to North Carolina. I finished my degree in Aerospace Engineering and started work at NASA Johnson Space Center. Construction of the International Space Station was about to begin and being apart of that looked like the best way to be prepared to work on what I hoped would follow – manned missions to Mars. Oh, yeah, I still had Martian fever. Even as I worked towards certification as a mission control flight controller, I enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in Geophysics, still intent on studying Mars.
My Master’s thesis was titled “A Drainage Analysis of Noachian Martian Valley Networks”. I managed to get paired with a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute who had developed software code that allowed you to digitally ‘flood’ the terrain of Mars and map where the water drains. I analyzed the resulting maps and compared them to terrestrial river networks. It was really incredible work and my first real opportunity to spend so much time looking at pictures, and maps of Mars and to study the work being done to understand them.
By the time I finished my thesis, however, my Martian fever had abated to a low grade, and my sites were set on merely finishing it and returning my focus on my growing family and work on the ISS Program. My thesis found a place on the shelf and I vowed to ‘someday’ combine my skills in engineering and geophysics to some new task towards the exploration of Mars. I’ve been saying that line and waving that intention for over 10 years now and you know what? It’s about time to live up to it.
Electron microscope photo inside of meteorite ALH84001. (Everett Gibson, Johnson Space Center, NASA)