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Just out of Curiosity

Dr Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Nasa, talks about the mission to Mars

  • By Nasheet Jaffer Khan, Deputy Editor – International
  • Published: 02:09 August 9, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: REUTERS
  • Dr. Charles Elachi, JPL Director, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

Dubai : Sometimes, even the sky is not the limit.

An hour before Nasa’s rover Curiosity was to land on Mars, Dr Charles Elachi had stepped out of the mission’s operation room to get some fresh air. As he looked up at the sky, he says he saw Mars setting in the West, in California. “It was an amazing feeling when I looked at Mars and said to myself that in an hour’s time we are going to land the rover on that planet. It was fantastic.”

What followed, on August 6, is a date in history which Dr Elachi hopes will pave way for more explorations. Man had landed on Mars.

The project had been eight years in the making and involved close to 200 scientists and researchers — experts who gave up their life to search for it elsewhere, on another planet.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Dr Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Nasa, talks about the most important lesson he learnt from the project and why it is important to always stay curious.

Gulf News: It is a well-known fact by now that the situation in the mission room prior to Curiosity’s landing was extremely stressful. How would you describe those ‘seven minutes of terror’ for you?

Dr Charles Elachi: I think there came a point when I actually thought I’d stop breathing. They were seven minutes of terror and anxiety because we were doing something which has never been done before. We were landing on another planet. We were coming in at the top of the atmosphere at the speed of about 20,000 km/h and in seven minutes we had to stop. You will see at every step, in those seven minutes, people were cheering but there was a great level of anxiety until we finally touched the surface and then the room almost exploded with the excitement. That moment was the realisation of a dream come true.

 

What does the rover landing on Mars mean for mankind? What if there is no life on mars? What next?

It’s not only about life on Mars even though life is the main objective. It’s also learning about another planet which is very similar to ours. It has polar caps, it has volcanoes which are extinct now but in the past used to be active. It has what looks like old rivers that are dry now. So the question is how did a planet like that evolve? It’s about understanding the similarities and differences with our planet. And of course taking the next step, could life have evolved in that kind of an environment? And even if we don’t find life, it will shed light on what is unique about our planet and why life only evolved on Earth. If we find life on Mars, most likely it will be extinct but it will tell us how fortunate we are to evolve on Earth. It is that quest for knowledge which propelled our ancestors and explorers, everywhere in the world, be it in the Arabian region of in the indian sub-continent or in the West, to discover new things. This is our generation’s exploration, your generation and mine.

 

So what do you categorise yourself as — an explorer or an inventor?

I would say as an explorer. As an explorer you have to invent things because you are doing something that was never done before. And to be able to achieve it, you have to invent things. For example, in the Middle East we invented the astrolab so that we could position ourselves relative to the stars. So every exploration usually has a lot of inventions resulting from it.

 

Growing up did you ever think that one day, in many ways, you would be responsible for man landing on Mars?

Our long term goal is to be able to travel across the solar system. And this is a step in that direction. Hopefully in a few years we will bring samples back so we learn how to do a round trip. Maybe it will not happen during my lifetime. But in the next 20 years, it is very likely we would start having people travelling to Mars.

 

Talking about the exploration and project itself, wasn’t $2.4 billion (Dh8.8 billion) a lot to invest? Especially since, we had no guarantee that we would be expecting something substantial in return.

I’m glad you ask this. Yes, it is $2.4 billion. That corresponds to $7 per American citizen, which is less than what that person would spend when he or she goes to watch a movie. And that’s over eight years, each American citizen going to one movie in eight years. That’s how much this mission costs. And every dollar spent here, down on earth, developing new technology is going to benefit all of us. Every country that invests in science, in education, in explorations will basically see the benefits to its economy in the long term.

 

What is the most important thing you have learnt from this project?

About human nature. About how when you are dealing with really daring, challenging things… how people come together as a team and accomplish those things. We knew, right then, sitting in that mission operation room, the possibility that we may fail. We were really on that edge between complete failure and complete success. And failure would be very embarrassing. We were willing to take the risk because it was such an important activity. That’s what I learnt from it, how great are we as human beings. When we are challenged by something that is really exciting and important, how we can collectively rise to that occasion.

 

Could you share JPL’s (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) secret on eating peanuts prior to any mission?

That was a tradition which started almost 40 years ago. In the 1960s, we were encountering a series of missions which failed. This was when we were just learning to do these things. One fine day, someone brought these peanuts and that mission succeeded. And we thought to ourselves ‘maybe we should have peanuts before any critical event’. And that’s how its has been since then.

 

What is the one thing about Curiosity that the world does not already know?

Fortunately nothing. Everything is being communicated in real time. There will be discoveries every day.

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