Dr. Ashwin Vasavada is a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , California. He is the Deputy Project Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission with its Curiosity rover. He helps lead an international team of over 400 scientists. (Photo: JPL, NASA)
By Mayank Chhaya
For NASA planetary scientist Ashwin Vasavada work on average is about 225 million kilometers away. Sometimes it moves as far as over 400 million kilometers. It is a good thing Dr. Vasavada does not have to travel to Mars where NASA’s most ambitious mission to date, the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission is digging rock and soil samples.
With a B.S. in Geophysics and Space Physics from University of California, Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Planetary Science, California Institute of Technology, Dr. Vasavada is now in the midst of what could potentially upend our definitions of life.
As someone engaged in the geologic studies of Mars with regard to surface properties, volatiles, and climate history, he is at the cutting edge of finding out whether Mars ever had or has habitable environments capable of supporting microbial life.
As the Deputy Project Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission with its Curiosity rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, he helps lead an international team of over 400 scientists.
A son of Gujarati parents, who came to America in the 1950s, Dr. Vasavada very nearly chose a career in music over science, but in the end, his parents persuaded him otherwise. Dr. Vasavada answered questions from me. The interview was originally conducted for three different media outlets, Gaon Connection, India’s rural newspaper in Hindi, Hi India, an Indian American weekly in Chicago and the IANS wire.
MC: Did Mars specifically figure in your childhood imagination or fantasy? If so, tell me a little about it?
AV: I’ve been fascinated by the planets since I was a child. I would often stare at pictures of Mars and Jupiter taken by early robotic spacecraft, and be amazed that these probes took pictures of landscapes that no human had ever seen. Pictures from spacecraft that landed on Mars’ surface were especially captivating to me, since they were taken from eye level, just as if I was there, standing on another world.
MC: Did you grow up with a career path clearly laid out in your mind?
AV: I grew up with two alternate goals: to be involved in space exploration, and to be a musician. I wandered back and forth between them, and tried to pursue both in college. But I think my parents eventually won, and convinced me to pursue science.
MC: What drew you to geophysics and planetary science, not the two most preferred career choices for the Indian American community?
AV: Growing up in the USA I the 1980s, space exploration was an inspiration. There’s a whole generation of scientists and engineers who were inspired by the Space Shuttle, and the exploration of the Moon and planets. At the same time, perhaps growing up in a smaller town with few other Indian Americans allowed me to consider other career options than just medicine! Honestly, I follow my own Indian father’s tradition. He didn’t become a doctor like his own father.
MC: Was there anything in your upbringing that may have prepared you for what you have eventually become?
AV: It goes without saying that the strong emphasis on education played a big part. My parents are both immigrants, and these values of education and working hard through college are shared by many immigrants and their children.
MC: Is it logical to assume that given the choice of your studies NASA would have been your early choice as the center of your career?
AV: Given my specific desire to explore the planets, NASA was the only choice.
MC: When did Mars begin to emerge as an important part of your career?
AV: Planetary scientists can work in laboratories or in theory, but the real fun is when you become part of an ongoing mission to another planet or moon. My first chance came in graduate school, when I was accepted at Caltech to join a professor and work on the next mission to Mars. The day I drove down to Pasadena to start, the spacecraft was lost when it failed to enter Mars’ orbit. Even though I was set on studying Mars, I couldn’t stand the thought of not working on an active mission. So I wrote a thesis on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, then went back to Mars after graduate school.
MC: I believe it has been eight years since you have been involved in the Curiosity mission. Was it difficult to sustain enthusiasm during this long gestation period?
AV: I began working on Curiosity in March 2004. Amazingly, there has never been a dull moment. There certainly is a lot of waiting for the payoff. But every step is challenging and interesting, from selecting the payload, designing the spacecraft, testing and rehearsing operations, launching, landing, and of course exploring Mars.
MC: The whole Curiosity mission is such a coming together of mind-bogglingly complex technologies. What are the challenges of being a team member on such a mission?
AV: One challenge is simply to have faith in the endeavor. Our success rate at Mars is about 50%, yet one dedicates a good decade of one’s life to each effort. With Curiosity, we knew we were taking several different risks: a much larger and heavier rover, a new landing system, and an incredibly complex payload. Any one of these could spell doom in an instant, not to mention just simple bad luck. We all come to work each day doing our best to ensure the success of the mission, and with a certain amount of humility, asking colleagues to double check our work.
MC: Your work began after all the thrill of Curiosity’s long journey and extraordinary landing had probably worn off. Is it difficult to stay focused on what is arguably the key, albeit, tedious part of the mission?
AV: I think it gets tedious for some of the engineers who find their challenge and satisfaction in the design, testing, and landing. But for the scientists, every day now brings new discoveries. Our payload is working so fantastically well; it’s such a great reward for all of the work in the last several years.
MC: Describe to me your typical day on the mission?
AV: We receive data from the spacecraft each day around 8 am. We quickly review the data to understand the health of the rover and instruments, and look for any quick scientific results that might determine what we do next. By 10 am, we have a set of preliminary plans for the next day on Mars. A few dozen scientists on duty will then meet with an equal number of engineers, and assemble the final plans, balancing the science requests with the capabilities and resources (like power and data downlink) on the rover. From noon until the evening these plans are checked, double-checked, and turned into the encoded commands to be transmitted. The commands are sent, we go to sleep, and the rover wakes up on Mars to do those activities.
MC: What are the highs and lows of your typical day?
HI: The highs are certainly the moment every morning where we see new pictures and hear the shouts of our team members as they realize they’ve made new discoveries. We have little celebrations nearly every day. The lows are when something we planned failed to work on Mars, either because we made a
mistake or the rover had a problem. Of course part of my job is managing a group of highly talented, ambitious, and sometimes stressed scientists, so there can be some ‘people issues’ to work through as well.
MC: You are an important part of a team that will determine whether Mars ever had or can have conditions suitable for life. Tell us about what it feels to look at the basic chemical structure of the Martian soil and rock samples?
AV: Since the early days of planetary exploration, there’s been a saying that no matter what we plan on these robotic missions, we will always be surprised. It’s amazing that after 50 years of exploring Mars, we still are surprised. This mission is by far the most carefully planned robotic mission in the history of NASA. We used incredible amounts of data from previous missions to choose our landing site and develop very specific ideas to test with our payload. Yet every time we process a sample, we wait nervously for the results, knowing that there’s a good chance we will discover something we couldn’t even imagine before.
MC: What are the possibilities that Curiosity might have carried microbial contamination with it which may unwittingly get planted on Mars?
AV: We know we took a small amount of contamination with us to Mars; it’s almost impossible not to. We just hope that it’s about what we expect, since our experiments are designed to cope with that amount. We have had some unpleasant surprises, realizing that our drill was contaminating samples more than we thought, and realizing that we brought some Florida air with us (during the launch) that contaminated some air samples. But our team has found ways to work around these problems.
MC: How conscious are you and your colleagues that in the event any form of life is found on Mars would have a profoundly altering impact on what has forever been an anthropocentric world?
AV: I think all of our team is aware of the very fundamental questions we are addressing on this mission. But many Mars scientists are also quite sober about the chances of finding evidence of life on Mars or other places in the solar system. Whether or not we find evidence of life, Curiosity is designed to learn a great deal about the capability of Mars to support life. That is a big step toward a scientific understanding of potential life in the universe.
MC: How aware do you think the Mars team that what you do has the potential to completely upend our terrestrial hubris about who we are?
AV: I suspect we’re all too caught up in the long and stressful hours of operating this rover to dwell on this too much. But there are moments, such as seeing the rocket leave Earth, where you suddenly realize what you’re doing. I watched that rocket get smaller and smaller, all of a sudden feeling smaller and smaller myself.
MC: Do you see yourself as a space traveler who may someday be on the surface of Mars scooping up samples?
AV: Not really. Partly this is just being realistic; I’m not sure when we’ll ever get there with humans. For now, Curiosity is a great virtual presence.
MC: How aware were you of the rather influential position that Mars has been accorded in Indian astrology and the laughable role it plays in determining marriages?
AV: Honestly, not very. Growing up in America, and being a scientist, I don’t think a lot about astrology.
MC: Which part of India does your family originally come from?
AV: My family is Gujarati.
MC: Does your heritage in anyway inform your profession?
AV: Probably most significantly in the Indian values that brought me to this career level. One wonderful result of this mission has been a rediscovery of my heritage. I’ve received many emails from Indians around the world who have seen my name on this mission. And I’ve had the chance to talk with several Indian journalists and with Indian college students. It makes me proud to feel that I can represent Indians and Indian Americans in this way.