National Press Club

NASA scientists look to InSight landing on Mars for clues to planet’s past and our future

November 14, 2018 | By Louise D. Walsh | ldwalsh@earthlink.net

James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, delivers remarks at a Nov. 14 National Press Club Newsmaker event. The panel also featured (l-r) Thomas D. Jones, veteran NASA astronaut; Richard Davis, asst. director for science and exploration in the NASA Science Mission Directorate; Janet Ivey, creator of “Janet’s Planet” and National Space Society Board Member and David Hodes, a member of the Club Headliners Team and moderator.

James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, delivers remarks at a Nov. 14 National Press Club Newsmaker event. The panel also featured (l-r) Thomas D. Jones, veteran NASA astronaut; Richard Davis, asst. director for science and exploration in the NASA Science Mission Directorate; Janet Ivey, creator of “Janet’s Planet” and National Space Society Board Member and David Hodes, a member of the Club Headliners Team and moderator.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

InSight, a NASA spacecraft scheduled to land on Mars Nov. 26, aims to answer “critical unknowns” about the Red Planet’s composition in preparation for human habitation, according to a science panel at a National Press Club Headliners event on Tuesday.

“Mars rocks are time machines,” said Dr. James Garvin, chief scientist of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “As I tell my students, no rock has ever lied to me!” he said to laughter.

One of four presenters at “Becoming Martians: NASA’s 25-year Plan for Humans to Inhabit the Planet,” Garvin invites us to imagine “Greenland-scale ice sheets, microbial Martians only a few feet below the planet surface.”

Introducing the panel as a member of Headliners team, David Hodes identified a stunning goal for Mars exploration: “extending the human race to another planet.” Future Martians are here now training for Mars missions using new technology “to get us there within 25 years.”

Garvin asks us if Mars is a place “worthy of the question: ‘Are we alone?’” His answer: it’s “the first good place to look. What’s under the dust, under the dirt? What’s that understory of Mars?”

Veteran astronaut and planetary scientist Thomas D. Jones’ motivation for Mars exploration is the “search for life. Past life or present, [it] breaks the mold of us being first.” But, "it’s not just Apollo 11 redone on Mars.”

Huge challenges exist like biomedical hazards, cardiovascular and skeletal concerns, vision degradation, and the unknown toxicity of Martian dust and surface soil. About 60 percent of astronauts have vision changes when they return, some permanent from micro-gravity.

“No one knows the effects of one-third the gravity [of Earth] on humans living on Mars for one year,” he said, let alone the six-months to one-year flight getting there: “We want you to be fit to explore when you arrive, not a hospital case.”

Richard Davis, assistant director for science and exploration in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said there’s “a moral imperative to get there, so we can solve problems on this [our] planet.”

He leads the group deciding where NASA will put its Mars base. “Every day we get smarter about Mars.” Holding up his mobile phone, Davis predicted we’re “going to have a symbiotic relationship with computers like we’ve never imagined.”

A Mars space station also needs reliable electricity. “I don’t want to have to choose between charging my rover or generating oxygen to keep me alive,” said Jones.

New technology to shield crews from radiation, move big pieces of equipment to Mars also needs be found. Panelist Janet Ivey, creator of the children’s science series, "Janet’s Planet," and member of the National Space Society’s board of governors, told of children’s enthusiasm for space exploration through play and science projects that capitalize on their curiosity and aspirations about space. She told how Resiah, a girl from Trinidad, learned that 12 men walked on the moon but no women, so she wrote herself into a story where she walked on its surface. “We have to give children permission to dream,” Ivey said.

Garvin gave an imagined view of "Ancient Mars" and an actual view of "Present Mars." The ancient view depicts mountains and water while the present shows only layers of rock. It’s not about whether a habitable or hospitable Mars once existed, he explained, but how do we tell that it did? That’s “a forensics problem” solved in part by getting under Mars’ skin for its microbial record.

Mars got the event’s top billing, but Earth’s moon played a starring role. “It’s time to put boots back on the moon,” said the astronaut. “Once you get people back on the moon, it makes it real”-- in the public’s mind, presumably, spurring interest and future funding. Describing our moon as “the early attic of our solar system,” Garvin called it “the ultimate deep-space, practice place” within the solar system. If you get something to work on the moon, like keeping dangerous dust under control, it’s so much easier to use that learning for Mars.

A crucial question is where to send humans first: Back to Earth’s moon or to the moons on Mars before going to Mars. Another option: Put manned spacecraft into the Mars orbit where humans don headsets and direct robots on Mars to do the work.

Davis named what he thinks is Mars exploration’s biggest problem: It’s belief, not technology. When an obstacle is believed too difficult or impossible to overcome, why try? But when obstacles are believed surmountable, they’ll attract the finest minds, along with resources to develop necessary technology.

Humans today are on the precipice of becoming an interplanetary species, but a belief in the possible may be what actually gets them there.