To kick off our coverage of the Present-Day Habitability of Mars Conference, Daily Bruin senior staff Elizabeth Case (who blogged about her experience following the Endeavor space shuttle through the streets of L.A. last quarter) talked to Curiosity scientist, Ashwin Vasavada. Vasavada, a UCLA graduate, talks about his time in Westwood and the likeliness of humankind ever making it to Mars. Above: Vasavada stands with a mockup of a rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Photo by Tim Walters of Florida Today.
Ashwin Vasavada is the deputy project scientist for the Curiosity rover, the robot that landed on Mars last August with tremendous fanfare. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion and took a little more than eight months to fly from Earth to the red planet.
Vasavada graduated from UCLA in 1992 with a degree in geophysics and space physics, completed his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, and returned to UCLA to do a postdoc and a fellowship. As the chief scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Vasavada oversees more than 400 scientists. These scientists have a goal: to find out if Mars was ever home to life.
What sparked your interest in planetary science?
I was (especially influenced) by the Viking landers that went to Mars in 1976. Those pictures from the surface of Mars … taken from eye level. It’s like you’re standing on another planet.
How did your time at UCLA affect your career?
I’d known I wanted to do planetary exploration since I was 10 but I had no idea what major to pursue. It’s a really small field – if you want to send robots to a planet, what major do you choose? I came in as an aerospace engineer, but realized I was more of a scientist. The most important (event) as an undergrad was finding an announcement nailed to a board that said Professor (David) Paige was teaching a class on planetary science. I changed my major my senior year. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for UCLA.
Take us back to August 5, when Curiosity landed. What was going through your head?
We have a ton of rehearsals, as real as we can make them. We simulated landings, press conferences, even who gets on the intercom to say what when. I think when it was actually happening it was this mix of, ‘I’ve already had this happen 10 times’ and then this surreal feeling that everything was going too smoothly.
And during the seven minutes of terror?*
(*Once the Curiosity Rover entered Mars’ atmosphere, it took seven minutes for it to reach the planet’s surface. This descent was the riskiest part of the mission. However, because communications are limited by the speed of light, there was a signal delay between Earth and the rover of about 14 minutes. So once scientists received word that the Rover had entered the Martian atmosphere, it had either landed successfully or crashed.)
Seven minutes isn’t that long, when it comes down to it. You finally hit the top of the atmosphere, and then, bing bang boom, you’re down on the ground and everyone’s clapping. I was thinking … what just happened? We can’t have actually just done it.
Why spend $2.5 billion to send a robot to Mars?
I could give you answers about how it might help us understand our own planet better, but in the end, it’s about answering one of the most fundamental questions: are we alone in the universe?
A $2.5 billion mission is not cheap. When you make comparisons, it’s like a cup of coffee for every person (in the United States). We’re taxpayer funded, so I (want to know) is it worth it to all the people I’m friends with, my relatives, would they spend the amount of money to buy a cup of coffee to have some answers about the fundamental questions of the universe? And I think almost everyone would say yeah, that’s what makes it so special to live in this country and this day and age, because we can actually answer these questions.
Will humans ever see the surface of the red planet?
After working on a robot that took nine years to develop and is really complex to land and operate, I think I’m pretty humble about what it would take to get a human to mars. We can do a great amount of science with robots for something around 10% of the cost of a human mission.
But I also think you have to keep pushing for it. All these groups that have these great plans to do it in 10 years … It sounds really optimistic to me, but more power to them. I think it’s inevitable that we’ll want to go to Mars as a species, because we’re explorers and we want to show we can do these things as a people.
Vasavada will discuss the most recent findings from Curiosity at 1:55 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 5 at the Royce Auditorium as part of the Present-Day Habitability of Mars conference.
- Elizabeth Case, Daily Bruin senior staff.