Page 40 - 2012 Lycoming Summer Magazine

r. David G. Fisher, professor of astronomy and physics at
Lycoming College, eagerly watched the live feed of the
Curiosity rover landing on Mars during the early hours of
Monday, Aug. 6. Although he stayed up all night to witness
history as it unfolded, he was back on campus working the very
same day and was kind enough to share his thoughts about the
momentous $2.5 billion space project.
Fisher has taught at Lycoming since 1984 and has extensive
practical experience with several projects coordinated by
the Johnson Space Center of NASA’s History Office. He has
participated in setting up a CD database on the Mercury, Gemini
and Apollo manned missions, prepared a corrected air-to-ground
transcript for the Apollo 11 first lunar landing mission, and
compiled CD collections of transcripts from the first several
shuttle missions. Fisher is also the author of numerous scientific
and professional research papers, and has been co-editor of
USA in Space
The Solar System
a pair of three-volume sets
published by Salem Press.
What type of inspiration will Curiosity provide?
This is the kind of thing that will spur on kids the way
astronaut] John Glenn spurred me on as a kid to do what I now
do. Not everybody is going to be able to grow up and work in the
space program. When I was a kid, a lot of us wanted to become
an astronaut. The vast majority of us did not, but a lot of us
went into science, engineering, became doctors or something
professional that otherwise we might not have because we were
spurred on to strive for excellence.
This is the perfect thing to get kids interested in what we
really must push these days – science, technology, engineering
and math. We are moving as a culture in a different direction and
this is really going to come back and haunt us. We are getting
evermore technological, but you have to have people who know
how to build that stuff in the first place. If that base gets less
and less, we are not going to continue to enjoy the kind of things
that we take for granted. We need things like this to get kids to
realize that it is cool to be a scientist or engineer.
What were you thinking as you watched the landing?
I have to admit that I was hoping for the best but was prepared
that it might not work out. The rover is almost the size of an SUV.
It is a really big laboratory that is mobile on the surface of Mars
and it carries a lot more scientific instrumentation than previous
rovers. It’s either going to answer a lot of questions or allow us
to begin to ask new questions. Science is a never-ending quest
for answers. This may provide us with results that make us think
in new ways.
It is kind of interesting that this is taking place at the same
time as the Olympics. This indeed was an international event.
It was largely the United States, but involved some other countries
as well. To use an analogy from the Olympics, we pulled off a
perfect 10, really hit gold on this one. It was a tremendous risk.
A quote from President Theodore Roosevelt fits really well here.
He said, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious
triumphs, even though checked by failure ... than to rank with
those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much,
because they live in a gray twilight that know not victory nor
defeat.” We risked a lot and could have been defeated, but we
earned victory.
Why is there a fascination with Mars?
Some people, especially young people, are really gung-ho
about Mars. Getting there with people would be marvelous. That
is the next big challenge – human exploration. For me, I’d still like
us to go back to the moon and finish what we started. For some of
us older folks, we’d like to see us to go beyond the Apollo moon
landings and go to Mars. The fascination with Mars is that it helps
us figure out a rather important story. There are three planets
Earth, Venus and Mars) in this solar system that are in the
habitable zone. Mars is a little smaller than Earth and a little
further out, but it is still in the range where it could have
conceivably had life. It has a very thin atmosphere and is very
cold. Water has been found on Mars – subsurface, frozen water.
There is strongly suggested evidence that water activity played a
role in modifying the surface. And geology suggests that water was
involved in how some of the sedimentary layers we formed. The
fact that Mars has water still – that it must have had a lot of water –
gives us the curiosity to figure out why is Mars different from
Earth and if there is still life there, which is a possibility. That is
part of the fascination.