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A lifetime of curiosity: An interview with JPL director Charles Elachi

Nadia Drake speaks with the lab head days before the Mars Science Laboratory’s scheduled landing

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Charles Elachi is busy this Friday morning. It’s three days before the Curiosity rover is set to land on Mars, and the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is cheerfully making tracks between a NASA social media event and his office on JPL’s campus.

Elachi has been at JPL for 42 years: He came to Caltech in 1968 to earn his Ph.D. in electrical sciences and started working at the lab in 1970. He became director in 2001. “I’m a lifer,” he says. “It has been such a great career.”

Elachi also has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California, training he sought after learning he’d be the principal investigator for a science experiment aboard the space shuttle. “I thought I better know how to read a budget sheet,” he explains. And, after befriending some geologists, he sought a master’s degree in geology from UCLA.  “I used to go with them on field trips,” he recalls. “And we were talking about sedimentary rocks and igneous rocks, and I thought, ‘Gee, it would be fun to learn this so at least I know what they’re talking about.’”

We sit down for a conversation in his office, which is decorated with mini replicas of JPL’s far-flung robotic explorers. The Spitzer Space Telescope, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, GRACE and GRAIL — there are dozens. “That’s Juno, on the way to Jupiter,” he says, pointing to a brownish, three-pronged miniature. “There’s Odyssey — that’s the key spacecraft for communicating with MSL,” he says, gesturing to the mini Mars orbiter that will relay information from the Curiosity rover, starting on Sunday evening.

And there, already nestled in among the others, is a tiny Curiosity rover.

Here are some highlights of our conversation about the latest Mars mission:

JPL is going to try and land a giant rover on Mars. How are you feeling about that? Are you nervous?

Well, yeah, to be honest. I asked that question to our lead person who’s doing the entry, descent and landing [Adam Steltzner] and he said, “Intellectually I feel great because we have done every test. Emotionally, I’m frightened like hell.”

And in a sense, I feel the same. Intellectually, we have done everything possible. This is probably the best tested, verified, analyzed lander we’ve ever done. But there is always a risk. You have 76 [pyrotechnic devices] which have to fire in the right sequence at the right time. You have a parachute which has been packaged a couple of years ago, which has to open and unfold and work perfectly. Everything has to work perfectly in order to have a successful landing. And there is no way we could have tested it exactly like we are flying it.

We don’t have a Mars atmosphere and a Mars environment to do that. So we had to test things in pieces. We did test the sky crane, we did test hovering, we did test the radar on a jet airplane coming down at the same speed. But putting them all together and having them all work in seven minutes — there’s no way you could test that.

That’s why there is this nail biting time. We’re going to be sitting in the room watching every event that is happening. But I feel confident. We have a first-rate team, and that’s the best you can ask for.

Where will you be watching from?

I’ll be in the mission operation room, standing behind everybody there, nervously watching all the data coming down, listening to what’s happening. I’ll be listening to the same thing you’ll be listening to. We’ll be transmitting all the info in real-time and the commentary. It will be exciting. Probably we’ll be sharing it with tens of millions of people.

It’s going to make great TV.

That’s true, that’s true. They’re going to have it in real-time in Times Square, on the big screen, so I’m sure there will be lots of people watching that.

Assuming the rover comes down, and it’s working and completes its mission, what do you hope its legacy will be? What are some of the big questions it can answer?

With Spirit and Opportunity and the orbiting assets, the community is pretty convinced that Mars did have an ocean a few billion years ago, which lasted for a significant period of time. A water ocean. So the immediate next question is, if there was a liquid ocean — and because it was liquid, that means the temperature was like here on Earth — and it’s there at roughly the same time that life evolved on Earth, could life have evolved on Mars?

If there were the right ingredients, the right temperature, the right liquid, the right organic material, then the next question is, did life evolve? How far did it evolve? And where is it now?

Now, Curiosity is not looking specifically for life, but it’s going to look at the ingredients, the organic material, the composition of the rock. Of course, if we see any bugs or something that’ll be amazing. But that’s not the real purpose. We’re doing it like a scientist, step by step, learning about the basic ingredients.

That’s the key objective, and hopefully ultimately that will prepare us for bringing samples back to Earth and doing much more detailed analyses with those samples.

If for some reason it looks like Mars never was habitable, would we still be pushing for a Mars sample return mission?

Yeah, I think we will. The life habitability is one factor, but so is really understanding the evolution of a planet. This is a planet which is very similar to us, in the big picture. It’s not much different from us, in terms of distance from the sun, it has the same geological processes on the surface. The same laws of physics, same laws of biology evolved on there. So if really we don’t find anything, that will be equally fascinating. Why did life only happen on this planet? And what are the differences which have led it to happen only on this planet? Bringing samples back and analyzing them in more detail to understand that will be equally exciting.

It will be cool to bring samples back from anywhere.

Oh yeah. And bringing samples back also has another engineering aspect to it. If you’re thinking of sending humans somewhere in the future, you need to learn how you go there, how you land, how you rove around, how you take off, how you come back. So in a sense, a sample return is a small step in a dry run, if you want — even though the humans will be a big step beyond that. But it gives us a better understanding of all these steps that have to be taken for a human mission.

Speaking of sending humans somewhere, at one point you said, “It’s important to stay bold and keep pushing the limits.”

Yeah, that’s true. Let me tell you a little anecdote that struck me here at JPL. A couple of years ago, I was talking with one of our new employees. I asked her, “What excites you about JPL, why are you working here?” And she said, “Well, what I like about this place — in the morning, I sit down with my colleagues at breakfast and talk about what‘s impossible, and then we go and do it.”

And that’s the kind of thing we need. That’s how explorers function. And inventors. You really think about what’s the limit, and then you go and push it, and find out what’s on other side. The way people do inventions is, they don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to invent something.”

The way we  do inventions, in any field not only in space, is you take a very, very hard problem and you put good people on it and tell them go and do it. And to do that, they have to invent something. I think that’s how the human mind operates, by getting a challenge.

Where do you think the limit is now? What are we pushing against? What’s next?

Something that’s very high on my list is taking pictures of neighboring planets. We do have the capability to take what I call the family portrait of the neighboring few thousand planetary systems. In my mind, that would be one of the most exciting things. Even if it’s a pixel. But if we can get more than a pixel, that will be great. That would change completely our thinking of the world around us.

The other one, which is equally exciting but in a different way, is going and visiting the different oceans around our solar system. Going to the ocean in Europa, the ocean in Enceladus, possibly the ocean on Titan — at least some people now believe there might be an ocean below the surface of Titan. And really see how these oceans look. Could things have evolved in them? It’s the same thing we talked about with Mars. We know there are water oceans. And then if they’re liquid, that mean you have the right temperature. And the question is, could life have evolved in that area?

I’d say those are two of the most exciting things that probably will happen in the next 10 or 20 years.

I’ve been asking various people on the MSL team, if you could go to Mars instead of the rover, would you go? And they all are saying no.

Well, it’s pretty nice here. Mars is exciting scientifically, but still, our planet is amazingly nice.

Do you think there’s life out there?

Oh yeah. I see absolutely no reason why life is not across the universe. Here you have the same laws of physics, the same laws of chemistry, the same laws of biology, the same material everywhere. There is really no reason whatsoever that life only happened on our planet. I’m pretty sure life is there across the universe.

But as a scientist, you have to prove it.

We are trained, you don’t come in with a new theory unless you can prove it, and that’s one of the challenges that we are all working on. You do it in steps. Find all the ingredients, all the environments, and so on. The exciting thing will be if we find planets which are not very far away, which have all those ingredients, then to focus on them and see, can we get any signals? That will be another very interesting thing.

What else do you think is important to tell Science News readers, or the public in general?

A couple of points, particularly because of the budget environment. One key point I keep making to all the politicians and decision-makers is that investment in science and education is absolutely essential for our country. The reason our country is so strong economically, and we have the lifestyle we have, is because of the investments that have been made in the past in developing new capabilities, new technologies, educating young people.

Who would have thought the Internet would change our life? It was an investment done by some of the DOD organizations to communicate, to have more resiliency in case of a catastrophe. So they came up with the Internet. Or you look at GPS, which we use all the time now, and that was also an investment the government did in terms of putting up a network of satellites. Or you could look at cell phones, which we cannot live without. Lots of that development was done in the space program, when they were developing low-power, high-efficiency electronics.

I think particularly when things are challenging, like the economy we have now, this is the time to increase investment, not the time to reduce it.

I hope that’s what the government will do. It’s going to require the public to say, “Look we really need to increase our investment in science in general, or space, or medicine — that’s what’s going to keep our economy strong.”

Otherwise, we’re going to fall behind other countries.

Education, scientific research, technology are probably the key areas that are going to help us. This is not only gaining knowledge, even though that’s very important, but it’s an investment which could strengthen our economy because of the inventions and the new technology and process of gaining knowledge.

Would you put planetary science in that category of things that need funding?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Almost all the science missions we do, even though the goal is to achieve more knowledge — by working that process of gaining knowledge, you develop a lot of new technology, new approaches to do things. Inventions happen as we seek knowledge. I would put all of space science in that category.

If I was in charge of the country, I would double the NASA budget overnight.

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