An energetic B. Gentry Lee kept IPC APEX EXPO® attendees riveted with tales of Mars Thursday morning, blending technical data about the Curiosity rover with a discussion of how perceptions of Mars have changed over the years.
Pacing the stage and speaking without notes, the chief engineer for the Solar System Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., explained that he’s been lucky enough to work on Mars explorations for his entire career. He’s been involved in every Mars launch since the late 1960s.
The 71-year-old explained why people thought for centuries that Mars was inhabited, a view that really didn’t subside until the United States started taking close-up images of Mars and landing craft on the planet.
Lee focused on the Curiosity, which landed on Mars August 6, 2012. Since then, its hefty payload of scientific instruments have been drilling into rocks and analyzing the clay-like surface. Drilling is necessary to get beyond weathering that’s occurred in recent centuries.
Saying he enjoys speaking to engineers, Lee explained how NASA and JPL teams sequence their equipment and test out various hypotheses. Determining what they know, can verify, and what simply can’t be replicated because of uncertainty, is a big factor. Noting that it’s impossible to test all the software on the vehicle, he said their approach is to certify logic and test operations that are performed most often.
Lee doesn’t hold much hope of seeing a human on Mars. He contends that humans aren’t needed if robots can do the work, so manned landings aren’t critical. The high cost is a key roadblock.
Lee also said he supports the privatization of space in areas where private companies are attempting to improve existing techniques such as launches. However, he said privatization won’t work in areas like exploration when scientists are doing things that haven’t been done before.