The Curiosity of Mars

Dr. 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 and 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.

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