Mars can be a window into early life on Earth, according to NASA scientist Roger Wiens. In "Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration, From Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity," Wiens, the principal investigator for the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity, describes the challenges – from politics to technical difficulties – of getting spacecraft to the red planet. Wiens recently spoke with U.S. News about the new direction of the space agency, the challenges of realizing new ideas for future space missions, and what studying Mars can reveal about Earth. Excerpts:
What inspired you to become a NASA scientist?
I write about the time in the 1960s when the Apollo astronauts were going to the moon. There was a lot of focus on where we were going to go next as a human race and things we were discovering, whether it [was] under the sea, in space or in the microcosm of the atom. So, growing up in that era I think it was very easy to be inspired about science.
Why are people so fascinated with the exploration of Mars?
It's because it is an alien planet that is like ours, and yet very unlike ours. It just really captures people's imagination. A century ago, this idea that Mars could possibly be inhabited really was this very exciting thing. We still are curious today from a scientific point of view about Mars because it is still pristine, [whereas] the Earth has gone through a lot of changes over the geologic time. We have a chance to look for life there that might even tell us something about early life on our own planet.
Why has NASA moved away from large, manned missions?
Well, cost is one of them. And, of course, along with costs is risk. It is a lot cheaper to send something to Mars that is not going to come back. I don't know if people realize that to bring people back from Mars would take a tremendous effort of building a rocket of quite a large size on the red planet so that you could launch people off somewhat like we do off of Earth.
Are human or robotic missions better?
I think both have their place. You could see a lot of our robotic exploration now as being precursor to human, but the human exploration may lag by quite some time to some of these places like Mars just because of the much bigger effort it will take to get there with humans.
How has an increase in robotic missions changed NASA's culture?
The change has been somewhat gradual, but it has resulted in a whole fleet of spacecraft that are out there now. We have spacecraft that have landed on asteroids; we have some that are headed out of the solar system. There's this real length and breadth to what NASA is exploring all at the same time. So there isn't this all-your-eggs-in-one-basket kind of mentality.
What are some of the difficulties NASA scientists face when developing their ideas?
Well, of course, these kinds of ideas take money. And anytime something costs a lot, there's a huge amount of competition because everyone wants the very best idea to rise to the top so that we get the most bang for our buck. In reality, the biggest hurdle for people like me is the politics. The politics is something that we have to work with because we have to show everyone that we are the best way to use the money.
How is Curiosity different from other rovers?
Curiosity is so much bigger in terms of its size. If you look back to the first generation of rovers, the Sojourner rover weighed only 23 pounds. Now, Curiosity weighs close to a ton. It is much bigger, has much more capability [and] instrumentation, and it is nuclear-powered, so that we can utilize a lot more energy on the rover.
What is ChemCam and what is its purpose?
ChemCam is a remote sensing composition instrument that is supposed to make quick-and-dirty measurements to see what is most interesting for the rover to spend the most time with. It uses a pulsed laser [that] packs the energy of a million light bulbs into the area almost the size of a pinhead, [creating] a little ball of plasma. These plasmas are different colors, depending on what elements are in the rock or soil, and that tells us the composition of these rocks and soils.