Dr. Joel Levine, who spent 41 years at NASA Langley Research Center and the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters and now serves as Research Professor in William and Mary's Department of Applied Science, had a lot on his plate last week.
After serving as Program Scientist for NASA's Mars Scout Program and Co-Chair of NASA's Human Exploration of Mars Science Analysis Group, and Co-Editor of the 974-page volume, "The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet," he began to see the fruition of his decades-long labor.
Time magazine published a 4-page article on an experiment in Hawaii, where a team of people lived on volcanic land simulating the surface of Mars. This was followed by a presentation by Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, at the International Astronautical Congress. He outlined an ambitious plan to colonize Mars in the next 20 years.
The discussion about the feasibility of sending humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth continued last week at the campus of William and Mary. Levine, in a one-hour talk at Sadler Center, entitled, "The Exploration of Mars by Humans: Why Mars? Why Humans?" addressed two overreaching scientific questions: Is there life on Mars? What processes transformed early Mars from an Earth-like planet with oceans, rivers and lakes and a thick atmosphere and what does this transformation on Mars portend for the future of planet Earth?
Illustrating his presentation with the latest close-up images of the surface of Mars, Levine explained that getting there will take about 9 months and to accomplish the mission, NASA is developing the Space Launch System which will carry the Orion human capsule.
He also clarified the reasons for sending humans to Mars. "National prestige, economic vitality, to satisfy the human desire to explore lands, to inspire the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers currently in elementary school, to perform scientific exploration to address questions that cannot be answered unambiguously by robotic missions, and also to provide a future sanctuary for the human race in the event that some catastrophic event should occur on Earth, like the impact or a collision with a large asteroid, catastrophic climate change, or a large-scale nuclear war," Levine said.
Levine emphasized that unambiguous answers to vital questions about Mars are difficult to obtain with robotic missions. The 1976 NASA Viking Lander was conducting three biology experiments to search for present-day life on Mars. Two of the experiments obtained negative results meaning that life was not detected. The third experiment obtained a positive response suggesting the detection of active life on Mars. Due to the negative results, NASA did not announce the discovery of life on Mars.
"The Viking biology experiment experience clearly showed the importance of a human investigator in the life detection experiment loop on site at the location of the experiment," Levine said.
In the support of human exploration of Mars, research is being conducted at the college. Students are investigating the geological characteristics of the proposed NASA sites for the first human landing. The college is also partnering with NASA in organizing a workshop entitled "Dust in the Atmosphere of Mars and its Impact on Human Exploration."
There are multiple questions that need to be answered and Mars' climate history may be found in atmospheric samples trapped in the Mars polar caps and glacial ice.
"Solving the climate history problem requires deep core drilling in the polar and glacial ice, extracting the core samples, melting them and releasing the trapped atmospheric gases in a vacuum facility for chemical analysis. NASA scientists believed, these activities were beyond the scope of a robotic probe," Levine said.
Shatz, a Williamsburg resident, is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com