A recent article in The New Yorker provides an in-depth, historic look at the exploration of Mars, including the current mission led by 2013 HWS Honorary Degree recipeint and alum John Grotzinger ’79, S.D.’13. Writer Burkhard Bilger describes the divergence of Earth and Mars in their early years, leaving Mars the red planet and Earth the host to so many forms of life. In the article’s chronicling of the earlier missions to Mars, Grotzinger, now the mission leader and project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, reflects on the first one in which he was involved, in 2004.
“I expected to find what we’d always found-a bunch of basalt,” he is quoted. “And that’s pretty much what Spirit did find. But then Opportunity landed. When the first pictures arrived, we were joking that NASA must be sending these down from the Western U.S. Then the mineralogical data came in, and we started to go, ‘No way. No way.’ “
The article describes him: “Now fifty-five, Grotzinger has worked in Siberia, Namibia, Oman, and Arctic Canada, among other locations. He has rafted rivers in Yakutsk, dodged grizzly bears and black flies around Great Slave Lake (his record for fly bites is two hundred in a single night), and scouted rock formations on the Skeleton Coast, sometimes hiking more than twenty miles a day. The long months of solitude and open sky have given him a lean, wind-bitten look and a laconic style rare among NASA’s high-strung engineers. Watching him at work, in the days leading up to the landing, I was reminded of Henry Fonda in one of his early Westerns: squinting at the horizon and chewing over his options while the townsfolk galloped off in a dozen different directions.”
The article also explains how Grotzinger “caught the bug for geobiology” from his uncle, geologist Preston Cloud. “Cloud was interested in how those fossils tied into the evolution of the planet-how microorganisms changed the environment,” Grotzinger said.
Returning to the significance of Opportunity’s mission and its pictures, Bilger writes, “Instead of a gravelly desert, they showed craggy outcrops; instead of dark basalt, pale sediment. This wasn’t a lava flow. It looked like windblown soil from the bed of a lake or pond-the kind of place most likely to harbor life and preserve its remains.”
“That was when I realized that I was in this for good,” Grotzinger said. “This wasn’t just a little detour.”
The full article with more detail of the search for life on Mars and on Grotzinger’s work is available online.