Geosciences alumnus applies degree to explore Mars
In 1985, John Grotzinger received his Ph.D. in geology from Virginia Tech. Now, he’s answering questions about Mars and his role as the chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
And not a day goes by where he doesn’t wonder at it all.
Landing on Mars “never crossed my mind once,” while studying in Blacksburg, Grotzinger said. “But in retrospect, when NASA approached me about taking this on, it was because of that (Virginia Tech) experience. I realized the moment they asked because they said as much: [the offer] was based on the field work and complex logistics of working in the middle of nowhere and working with a group of people in isolation for months on end. I was doing it to get some geology done, but that was great training for leading the mission.”
The geology Grotzinger refers to is his field work in northwestern Canada where he and his team studied the rocks there in an effort to reconstruct the past. “It was part of my Ph.D. work at Virginia Tech -- we were studying very old rocks in a way that allowed us to reconstruct and look at the relationship between microbial life and the ancient environment.”
“Before I even met John, the only thing I had from him were a pile of rocks from the Canadian Arctic and a bill for $900,” said Emeritus Professor of Geology Fred Read, an advisor to Grotzinger, while studying at Virginia Tech. “But he was a fantastic person to have in the lab – keen, driven and a marvelous sense of humor. He’s an amazing field geologist and when he came here he had his own project working with Paul Hoffman, a famous North American geologist who worked for the Geological Survey of Canada and who later went on to Harvard.
“Ken Eriksson and I, who were John’s co-advisors, were lucky enough to go to the Arctic with him and see one of the best exposed ancient continental margins anywhere of any age and from that John produced a landmark Ph.D. which led to subsequent research on pre-Cambrian carbonate continental margins. He co-edited a volume which laid out the evolution of these margins over time as oceans, continents, and atmosphere evolved – he’s the perfect guy for the Mars job and obviously, we’re very proud of him in the department.”
“During his time at Virginia Tech, John was recognized and respected as a leader among our graduate students,” said Ken Eriksson, professor of geology. “He was clearly destined to make an impact on the wider community.”
My work now “borrows very heavily on the experience I got at Tech,” Grotzinger said. “We’re trying to do the same thing on Mars that we did in Canada. We have very ancient rocks – with the same kind of layered deposits -- so we do imaging and make measurements and put the data together and reconstruct what environments were like billions of years ago. The difference is, we don’t know if life ever originated on Mars. If it had, would this be the kind of environment where life would have been possible?”
After five years of research, the site on which the team landed Curiosity is called Gale Crater which, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a massive crater with a 3-mile high layered mountain which contains clay and sulfates, both known to form in water. “The thing about this mission that is so special is the landing site,” Grotzinger said. “This enormous Gale Crater has inside it a more enormous mountain with stacks of layers that represent the type of geology I was taught to tear apart at Tech.
“In the context of how we understand the Earth, and if you consider the really ancient record of Earth’s environment – what influenced the course of biologic evolution here, you realize that evolution is about genetic possibility and environmental opportunity. That’s what the field of geo-biology is all about, trying to understand how the pathways of life are driven by environmental change. To do that you need to go ‘deep time’ – hundreds of millions or billions of years and we’re able to do that on Mars now for the first time. When you look at a thick stack of layers it’s like a book and you start at the bottom with the earliest chapters and work your way up. The cool thing is that whatever was going on on Mars at the time of the story we’re about to read, is at the time life was starting to evolve on Earth. We get to read that story here and see what controlled the early environmental evolution. I hope that will be the legacy of this mission…when you walk away from this, what I hope to get out of it is to understand the early environmental history of Mars.”
Grotzinger got his first taste of Mars when he worked on the science team with the rover Opportunity that landed in 2004 and made the discovery of evidence for liquid water on ancient Mars. The Curiosity mission, however, still holds plenty of surprises.
“I wondered what would replace [the experience of working with Opportunity]; the bar is so high, but now, it’s Curiosity,” he said. “Every other day now that we’re driving – every time we turn on an instrument and it functions…and you’re good to go for first-time use – when you do that, everyone claps. Every part that works for the first time, everyone claps – this went on for more than a month.”
Grotzinger explained that Curiosity was supposed to launch in 2009 but technical issues with the rover and other problems caused the program to miss a narrow launch window. “You only get a month or two every two years to go to Mars and that was emotionally devastating,” he said. “To work so hard and see it’s not going to work and to know you’ll have to spend two more years before the next chance. ... Every day it’s all the stuff we know is wrapped up inside that is so much more complex – and you get to watch it unwrap and work. Every day, it’s the experience of a lifetime.”
Despite his current role in space and his achievements – a citation for his 2002 selection to the National Academy of Sciences reads in part: “Considered the leading sedimentary geologist of his generation,” Grotzinger is comfortably down to earth and credits his education with his success.
“I think [Virginia Tech] was the right place as a grad student,” he said. “I wanted to refine my skills after my masters and Tech had the right program. The faculty and my principal advisors Fred Read and Ken Eriksson had a significant impact – there were several faculty members I was interested to have interaction with when I applied. It was a very fertile environment and you actually learn more from the graduate students than the professors because they are who you spend your time with – who you bounce ideas off. I look on those years as a very special thing and I’m really grateful for having had that Virginia Tech education.”
As the eyes of the world stare upward with Grotzinger and his team, he’s also aware that younger eyes are trained on the scientists in California who are making Curiosity the space mission of their generation.
“The name Curiosity was from a 6th grade girl – now she’s in high school,” Grotzinger said. “She came to visit, which was fun and we’re going to continue to try to roll out things we think will be fun for people. My generation got to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon and it was incredibly emotional. What I’ve learned is that there is a new generation who never knew Neil Armstrong, but they have seen Curiosity land on Mars and they are engaged and it’s become their Neil Armstrong.”
For those interested in a career in science, Grotzinger has this advice: “Never close your options. A general education in science and engineering is a great thing and when you’re making decisions about the future, choose those paths which leave you the greatest amount of option space – take the classes you need that keep you as a generalist with specific strengths. And learn to appreciate the great outdoors and working in the field.”