A Writer's 'Martian Summer' On Earth

In the summer of 2008, Brooklyn writer Andrew Kessler spent three months among the scientists and engineers who were exploring the small grains and vast vistas of Mars through the lenses and limbs of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander without ever leaving mission control in Tucson. Scott Simon talks with Kessler about his book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Andrew Kessler is a Brooklyn guy who found the Phoenix is Tucson to see what it's like on Mars. In the summer of 2008, Mr. Kessler, who is a Brooklyn writer, spent three months among the scientists and engineers who were exploring the small grains and vast vistas of Mars through the lenses and limbs of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander without ever leaving mission control in Tucson.

Mr. Kessler has now written a book: "Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission." Mr. Kessler joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ANDREW KESSLER (Author, "Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission"): Thank you having me, Scott Simon.

SIMON: And first, tell us about this mission control you spent so much time in. It's not the one we see on television, is it, much less science fiction films?

Mr. KESSLER: No. Sadly, there aren't really any glowing orbs or big titanium consoles. It's got more of the church basement aesthetic going on, but it's kind of a magic place in that what you can do from there is a lot more impressive than how it looks.

SIMON: Yeah. And you just didn't spend night and day there but sols, as they're called.

Mr. KESSLER: So, when you work on a Mars mission, you learn quickly that it doesn't operate quite like a normal office job and you have to live on this crazy Mars schedule, where your Earth day has to match up with the Mars day. But unfortunately Mars spins at a different rate, so they have a 24-hour and 40-minute day. So, you end up going to work 40 minutes later each day and this gives you a kind of terrible jetlag that you can never ever sync up with.

SIMON: The book tells a human story but, of course, there is science at stake here. This is the mission that discovered ice and vapor on the surface of Mars or just below the surface. And what does that mean?

Mr. KESSLER: So, this mission not only showed that there was ice just under the surface of Mars at the north pole but there was also the evidence of liquid water in this weird briny substance and then also that there's this interesting chemical called perchlorate that might be hiding the organic signal that we've been looking for on our previous Mars missions. So, they really did a lot of amazing work.

SIMON: Now, you were enlisted into this project by a guy named Peter Smith, who was a little sensitive about being called The Great Martian Photographer. Tell us about Peter Smith. You're awfully fond of him.

Mr. KESSLER: I am very fond of Peter Smith. He kind of looms large in my imagination and also in the real world. He's this kind of great understander of narrative and he this way of presenting science missions that really make you fall in love with them. And the first time that I met him I was so hooked on this mission and the idea that we should be out there doing this amazing research and that curiosity-based research is really important for us as a species.

SIMON: Curiosity-based research as opposed to?

Mr. KESSLER: Well, I think a lot of people argue, oh, what kind of monetary results does this investment get us? But there is, I think, something wonderful in what it does for us. It brings us all together, makes us realize how precarious our position in the universe is and I think that's kind of magic and important.

SIMON: How hard or easy is it to pick up soil samples from the surface of Mars, which, after all, is a good long way away?

Mr. KESSLER: That's kind of a funny thing, right? You imagine that - and I think it was part of this difficult job, especially the engineers that the run robot arm on the mission have - is that everyone understands how to pick up soil in a pail. You go to the beach when you're two years old and you take your shovel and you put sand in a pail and it's really easy, right?

Except doing it from 200 million miles away adds a lot of complexity that's really unfathomable until you see how much planning it takes just to pick up a few grains, a few cubic centimeters of Martian dirt.

SIMON: There's a considerable time lag, isn't there?

Mr. KESSLER: Mars is so far that it takes a signal 15 minutes to get there. And then you think it has to come back too, so that's 30 minutes. So, you can't really operate in real time. And then there's another complication in that Phoenix can't communicate directly with Earth so it has to wait for these satellite overpasses. So, you have to plan all of Phoenix's day in one shot and then you send it up and, obviously, you hope for the best but you don't know a lot about your surroundings - this is a new place for us. We've never been there.

And then Phoenix does its work and sends its results home and then you quickly look at them and try and understand what's happened and then re-plan for the next day. And this is just this herculean task that happens every day on the mission, requires an army of amazing engineers to make happen.

SIMON: Who do you hold responsible for those initial reports that there's life on Mars that turned out to be, near as we know right now, a little less than what they seem to be at first?

Mr. KESSLER: There was a story in Aviation Week that came out that said that the President's Science Advisory was alerted to some new findings on Mars. And I guess the media took that mean that there was life on Mars, when in fact the story, I think, said that there was the possibility for life on Mars, which is true. And it's, you know, it's like the birth of a conspiracy.

In fact, what was happening is that the mission had discovered what they thought was this strange chemical called perchlorate and I guess news leaked out that there was some special new finding. And so that somehow morphed into we're hiding life on Mars, oh my. And then all of the sudden the blogosphere just exploded with stories about life on Mars and hiding things and NASA's covering up something. And then the truth was just this interesting chemistry finding.

SIMON: You're about 30, Mr. Kessler?

Mr. KESSLER: I am. I am 32.

SIMON: Do you think human beings will land on Mars in your lifetime?

Mr. KESSLER: Wow. I would tend to doubt it. Right now, I don't think that there's the political will or capital. I would love to see that, but, God, my gut says probably not.

SIMON: Now, a Mars science laboratory is scheduled to launch at the end of this year, isn't it?

Mr. KESSLER: That's correct. Yes, hopefully, if everything works out. It's a much larger kind of vehicle and it can move around. And it has the means of detecting organic material without heating up the sample. And that's kind of exciting, because what Phoenix found is that there's this substance, perchlorate, in the soil and when you try and look for organic material by heating it up, you end up burning the sample and hiding it.

So, all of these results that said there was no organic material on Mars were maybe wrong.

SIMON: Wow. I've been saving this question for the last one.

Mr. KESSLER: Oh boy.

SIMON: Are we alone?

Mr. KESSLER: I think that it would be shocking if there weren't something living on Mars. And I think when we find it and see how different or similar it is to us, it's going to blow our minds and that'll be fantastic. But with all that big universe out there there's got to be other stuff.

SIMON: Mr. Kessler, thanks so much.

Mr. KESSLER: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

SIMON: Andrew Kessler. His new book, "Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission."

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SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

SIMON: Keep watching the skies. I'm Scott Simon.

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