Red Rover

The Mars Exploration Rovers represent the most ambitious Mars study undertaken to date, and (surprise!) our very own Arizona State University is more involved in the mission (with four space scientists playing major roles) than any other university in the country. Scott Nowicki, a graduate research associate at the ASU Mars Space Flight Facility, says that ASU isn't just contributing to space exploration; ASU is space exploration.

New Times: When did our local party school become a hotbed of space science?

Scott Nowicki: It's really just the work of a handful of people who've been very lucky and been involved with new technologies and science. At this point, we've exploded to the degree that we're bigger than any other institution for planetary science.

NT: But Cornell is actually the university directing the team of Mars scientists, right?

Nowicki: Right. Well, actually, very little happens at Cornell. But the lead guy for the entire mission is at Cornell. So it's a bunch of people in a lot of different places working on the mission itself. We're different, because we're actually running the instruments, the two orbiters, and our portion of the mission from here.

NT: Why are we so hot on Mars? Why not Uranus?

Nowicki: Mars is interesting because it's so similar to Earth. It's a little smaller, but if there's any other planet we can possibly live on, it's going to be Mars. We're looking at it because it's a place where we can learn a lot about our own planet -- how the climate has changed and how life evolved there, those are the big questions.

NT: NASA is sort of over the moon -- "Been there, done that."

Nowicki: To some degree, we've answered all of the big questions about the moon. We've gotten the samples back, we've come up with a theory about the place -- which may not be entirely correct -- but we've got a pretty good understanding of the moon, and we've moved on to other planets.

NT: So if someone offers to sell me land on the moon or land on Mars, I should go with Mars.

Nowicki: Well, property on Mars will be a whole lot more expensive to get to. Life would be more fun on Mars, but on the moon you could actually accomplish something.

NT: Weightlessness, for example. How do you get information from NASA about what they're finding on Mars?

Nowicki: We are NASA. NASA is an administrative body, and in reality, we drew up a proposal, designed the instruments, actually built them. I tested [the instruments], and we put them on a rocket and sent them to Mars. We get the information back directly from the orbiters. We see it first.

NT: Well, maybe we won't have to worry that NASA is keeping Mars secrets, then. We won't hear, years from now, that this was all a big cover-up and Mars was really a movie set?

Nowicki: Nah. We're the only ones who are looking at the data at this point. It goes to us before it goes to anyone else. The information comes to us, then we provide it to the world.

NT: Let's say you do find that there was once water on Mars. So what?

Nowicki: We're looking for water because water is where we assume life will have to occur. If there was a warm, wet period in Mars' history, where did that water go, what happened to it, what got rid of it?

NT: What happens if you find people up there?

Nowicki: That'd be pretty cool. We'd get all sorts of funding then, and we'd send all sorts of missions to Mars, and I think it would be very entertaining.

NT: Isn't it possible that there are Martians living there, and they're just sort of dodging your cameras? Maybe they don't like having their picture taken.

Nowicki: We've looked at the entire planet with big cameras, and so if there were cities or buildings, we would have seen them. We want to find anything, be it weird chemical processes that could be called life, or something else.

NT: So the discovery of space aphids would be enough for you?

Nowicki: Oh, yeah.

NT: Since the U.S. sent over the first rovers, does that mean that Mars is ours now?

Nowicki: Oh, no. It's anyone's who's got the money to send stuff there. I think there were Russian missions before ours. But we've sent the only rovers that have survived and done anything on the surface.

NT: It's pretty American of us to have left litter behind, though. What will happen to the parachute and backshell that are sitting on Mars? Is that what we do, go around leaving litter on other planets -- planets with no flora or fauna to cover the litter?

Nowicki: We've been doing that ever since we started going to the moon. There are a couple of cars sitting on the moon. There's a landing module up there, golf balls, scientific equipment, broken landers. It's really difficult to get that stuff back to Earth, so we just leave it all up there.

NT: If we're going to leave crap lying around up there, we should at least have advertisements for Coke or McDonald's printed on them, in case there is life on Mars. A whole new ad demographic!

Nowicki: Yeah. I guess so.

NT: Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres says the Rover saw some "wild-looking stuff." What does that mean? Wild-looking compared to what?

Nowicki: Compared to what we've seen before on Mars. We've had three other Vikings land there before, and they found a bunch of rocks with maybe some sandlike material between them, and really that's about it. This time, we've actually seen something new -- different-looking areas where we know there's enough of a story we can figure out.

NT: What's the Mars Student Imaging Project?

Nowicki: Junior high and high school classes send kids over, and we sit them down and teach them about Mars and the instruments we designed, and they attempt to understand the planet by requesting pictures. They say, "We want a visible image of this particular crater," and we take the picture for them.

NT: So this is a university-funded program that allows kids to order snapshots from the surface of Mars?

Nowicki: Yes, and then they do a scientific analysis of that image.

NT: Can I request an image?

Nowicki: You can, actually.

NT: Okay. I'd like a photograph of a Martian wig shop. Hey, while you've got all these kids hanging around, why not have a "name the rover" contest? Spirit and Opportunity are kind of goofy names.

Nowicki: Those names came from a student contest! A girl in Scottsdale came up with the names.

NT: It seems like all of NASA is suddenly being run out of the East Valley.

Nowicki: There's a whole lot going on here. And up there. On each orbiter and lander, there's a whole suite of instruments looking at Mars in different ways, trying to answer different questions about radiation environment versus surface information. It's a multitiered effort to answer scientific questions.

NT: What's next in Mars exploration?

Nowicki: That depends on who you talk to. A couple weeks ago President Bush said, "We're going to Mars; we're going to the moon, and things are going to be great, we're going to pour all this money into it." In reality, he completely lied. He's actually cutting the NASA budget over the next five years; it's not even increasing with inflation. He's also cutting the small amount we use for education -- a couple hundred million dollars out of a $15 billion budget -- in half.

NT: He lied? But he's the president!

Nowicki: He is the president. He says, "Yeah, we're going to Mars," but it's going to take an incredible amount of money to get there, and he hasn't proposed putting any more money into it. So, from where we're sitting right now, we're not going anywhere.

NT: One final question: Is the man in the moon a lady?

Nowicki: That's a good question.

NT: That's the only kind I ask.

E-mail [email protected]

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela