NASA Scientist: Mars Mission’s Success Could Sway White House on Aid

Monday, 20 Aug 2012 04:59 PM

By Todd Beamon and Katie Lotman

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The success of the Curiosity mission to Mars may go a long way toward helping NASA gain additional funding for space exploration from the Obama administration, NASA scientist Dr. Amy McAdam tells Newsmax.TV in an exclusive interview.

“I would hope so. You have to take a risk – and it might not work and it might work,” McAdam, a research space scientist in the Planetary Environments Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells Newsmax. “But if you don’t try, you’ll never know – and so we tried, and we were successful.

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“We’ve been getting spectacular results, so it can only help people to see – the taxpayers and the public to see – what we can achieve and what we should be proud of.

“The U.S. really leads this type of effort together with several international partners,” McAdam added. “There are contributions from seven other countries, but the U.S. should be very proud of this.

“It’s just amazing. Even just the process of landing is so difficult, so complicated – and then the rover itself is just a spectacular science payload.”

On Aug. 6, Curiosity landed inside a giant crater on Mars, capping a two-year effort to reach the red planet. The landing brought cheers and applause at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory – and minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 1:32 a.m., Eastern time, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.

On Sunday, its 13th day on Mars, the rover fired its laser for the first time. It was one of the most anticipated actions of Curiosity’s mission, The Washington Post reports.

“So far, we have mainly taken images, and a lot of these have been out on the Web,” McAdam said. “The team has been looking at these images and also data that we have from orbit and trying to decide where we want to go and what we think is going in the area around us. It’s just been really exciting to be here with this huge, distinguished team of people and hypothesizing about what’s going on around us and what we get to do next.”

“I’m a geologist, so now I get to help the team do geology on Mars – and it’s really been something I’ve dreamed about: being involved in as a NASA mission,” she said.

Inside the one-ton, six-wheeled rover is an instrument called SAM, for Sample Analysis at Mars. It is the most complex scientific instrument on the rover. It is designed to look for organic compounds, those necessary for life, by analyzing rocks and soils. Finding such compounds would give another sign that there might once have been life on Mars.

“The instrument I work on, SAM, is inside the rover,” McAdam said. SAM was built at NASA Goddard. “I’m really excited to see that first data, but that sample has to be very carefully picked out by analyses by the other instruments first to narrow down what we want to commit to sticking inside the rover and doing these intensive, analytical experiments on inside the rover.”

Also inside Curiosity are two other instruments that, “once we find the sample we want, we can scoop it, or – if it’s a rock – drill into it and put it inside the rover, and they will give us very detailed information about the mineralogy and the environment and, hopefully, insight into the habitability there – the habitability captured in the those rocks – the geologic story in those rocks or soils.”

While Curiosity will be spending 687 days collecting data on Mars, NASA has several other space explorations planned, McAdam said, including another one to Mars that will study its atmosphere.

“Mars has a thin atmosphere. It is mostly carbon dioxide, but we think it was thicker in the past – maybe even thick enough to be greenhouse enough that you could have had water flowing on the surface. But now it’s thin, and how did that happen?

“It has implications for understanding atmospheres of all the planets including Earth’s, but also specifically the Martian climate change over time,” McAdam said.

An exploration to Pluto, the New Horizons Mission, was launched within the past decade and is set to arrive by 2018.

“This will be the first mission where we will see what Pluto looks like other than with Hubble – and we will actually see the surface of it. It’s really far away. Because it is very far away, it takes a long time.

“Right now, there’s an orbiter around Mercury called Messenger studying the surface of Mercury,” McAdam added. “There’s an orbiter around the moon called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that’s studying the surface of the moon in great detail.”

All of these missions point to NASA’s broader role, she said.

“Another equally important role of NASA – the technology development aspect is very important – but one of the most important roles that NASA has is to inspire youth – and everybody – to be interested in, to maybe go into a career of math and science, a field where the U.S. can have a lot of expertise in,” McAdam said.

“It’s very heartening when I talk to people about the Mars rover and people are always interested. It’s easy to engage them. I hope that this inspires people like I was inspired.

“I can’t believe I’m here. I have been interested in space since I was a kid – and I’m just really grateful, and I hope that all of this can inspire kids to maybe do the same thing if that’s where their heart takes them.”
And NASA mission controller Bobak Ferdowsi may be doing just that. Ferdowsi – dubbed the “Mohawk Guy” – was pictured among those celebrating Curiosity’s landing on Mars. Some have since said that Fedowsi has made science seem “cool.”

“I think it will help a lot,” McAdam said. “There can be this stereotype of the NASA guy in the white button-down coat and the big, black, thick glasses.

“Bobak showed people that there’s actually a lot of diversity – and it is actually cool. It just illustrates that. Not that it wasn’t always cool, but it’s just a different image.”

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