Hiller Aviation Museum’s Jon Welte talks space travel, Martian life and Silicon Valley in space.
This time next week, Perseverance could be sitting peacefully upon Martian ground.
If its landing proves a successful one, NASA’s Perseverance rover — Percy, as the robot has been fondly called — will be the ninth American rover ever to land on Mars. By Jon Welte’s account, there have been 18 distinct attempts to land rovers on the surface of Mars; so far only eight have succeeded.
On July 4, 1997, Welte, the Vice President of Education & Public Programs at San Carlos’s Hiller Aviation Museum, was in a conference room in Pasadena, Calif., watching alongside 2,000 other enthusiasts as the rover Sojourner successfully touched down on the Martian surface. That mission marked the United States’ return to the surface of Mars after an almost 20-year hiatus, Welte said, and as he and his peers watched, Sojourner began remitting photos of the Martian surface back to Earth.
“One of the first pictures that popped up on the screen was a mountain. And all of us were like, wow,” Welte said, recalling how previous rovers had only transmitted photos of homogenous, flat terrain. “People were going crazy.”
Nearly 25 years later, Welte’s enthusiasm for space exploration has not dimmed. On Feb. 17, a day ahead of Perseverance’s scheduled landing, he’ll host a virtual talk about the history of missions to Mars and clue listeners in about what makes Perseverance’s mission a special one. Hint: It involves rockets, water on Mars and a space helicopter. Well… kind of. Read on — we’ll let Welte do the explaining.
Tell me a little about yourself and the work you do at Hiller. How has it been altered by the pandemic?
I’ve been here at the Hiller Aviation Museum since 2007, my primary responsibility is our K-12 education program.
The museum itself has been closed to the public for most of the last 11 months; we were open briefly last summer, and for a longer period in the fall. We’ll most likely be reopening on a semi-limited basis some time in the spring. Our upcoming talk on the Mars landing is part of a series of virtual outreaches, the Hanger Talk series, that was developed by our CEO Jeff Bass as a way of continuing engagement with the community. We’ve had about 30 of them since last April. I’m looking forward to the one next week, since talking about Mars and space exploration is in my wheelhouse, so to speak.
What makes you say that?
I have a degree in astrophysics from Cal; I used lead public telescope viewings as part of a student-led club there. After I graduated, I worked at the Adler Chicago Planetarium for a year, and I discovered that being able to share my love and passion of science and astronomy was really a neat opportunity. I also have a private pilot’s certificate. When I joined Hiller, I was like — Wow. I get to teach science, work with kids and be around airplanes. You can’t beat it.
Tell me a little bit about the history of the Mars landings: I understand less than half have been successful.
I did the math, and I counted 18 distinct attempts [to land on Mars], and only eight have worked. There have been about 50 attempts to send a robot to Mars — about half succeeded, half failed.
People have been fascinated with Mars for a long time. What is it about Mars? The short answer is that it’s so similar to Earth, except that Mars is about half of Earth’s diameter and in the next orbit out. It rotates, like the Earth does; it has seasons. All the same things seem to be going on on Mars as Earth, so it’s been a tantalizing destination.
In the 1960s, the science of rocketry progressed to the point where it became possible to send a spacecraft to Mars. And the biggest change in our knowledge of Mars has come (not from landing on Mars, but) from spacecraft orbiting Mars. In 1964, Mariner 4 flew by the planet, it took 20 pictures at crummy resolution by modern day standards, but they were dramatically better than anything that was possible from Earth.
The first spacecraft trying to land on Mars — both the Soviet landers and the (American) Viking landers — were attached to a spacecraft that got to Mars, then slowed down and went into Mars’s orbit. Then afterwards part of that spacecraft detached, entered Mars’s atmosphere and landed. The biggest challenge for all these spacecraft is what (scientists) call EDL — entry, descent and landing. Any time you go from interplanetary space to the surface (of a planet), that’s a big transition and there’s significant risk associated with trying to land. We’ve lost about six spacecraft on EDL.
Viewers might hear about the seven minutes of terror — what is that?
When a spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, usually Mars is far enough away that it takes between 10 and 20 minutes for radio signals to go one way to Earth. Your little robot sends a signal that it’s beginning to land — it takes about seven minutes for the craft to land from the top of the Martian atmosphere — and it’s going to take between 10 and 20 minutes for the signal to get to (mission control). By the time you get that message, your craft has either landed or died. You see flight controllers sitting there (during launches), but there’s nothing they can do to change course — they’re just watching what happens. And the landing is such an extreme event — you’re going from high speed to no speed, and it happens so fast — that this is where most of the failures take place.
What about the landings that have been successful? What have we learned from those rovers?
The first successful landers to set down on Mars targeted the planet’s flattest spots. The places they landed were quite boring because the (landing) technology that existed was pretty limited. So the engineers specifically scouted out the flattest places on the planet, which happened to be among the scientifically least interesting. As time went on, we became more clever, and the Opportunity rover was dropped into a place where scientists previously discovered the chemical signature of the mineral hematite, which on Earth can only be formed in liquid water.
That discovery had been a revelation. So (Opportunity’s) landing system permitted a landing in what was in slightly more dangerous terrain. That area is an area that was almost certainly covered by liquid water in Mars’s past, when it was warmer and wetter. That kind of leads on to this whole spectrum of discoveries, many of which are connected to the role of water on Mars.
We’ve also seen SpaceX make a few attempts, now — but their most recent launch failed. Can you share your thoughts on their efforts? Do you believe we might see more Silicon Valley companies start to make forays into space technology?
One of the things SpaceX has really pioneered that has been otherwise largely absent from previous space initiatives is the reusability of hardware with the goal of reducing the cost (of a launch). The primary barrier to doing clever stuff in space is the cost of getting there. It’s incredibly expensive to put stuff into Earth’s orbit. A few years ago, it was $10,000 a pound — and more expensive, if you were going further than that.
So SpaceX is making hardware that is fully reusable, and by virtue of its reusability, less expensive. They’ve made far greater strides [than NASA has with that].
One of the space-related technologies that’s had the greatest impact is a project the Air Force put up — the global position system. GPS. Today we use that technology for all sorts of things… it’s a public utility. That ultimately will be just the tip of the iceberg.
There will be tremendous openings for companies to innovatively leverage equipment into space — the challenge right now is knowing what these technologies will be and how to create a regulatory environment that encourages innovation but prevents the tragedy of the commons, where you have a shared resource, but no penalty for one person overusing it and ruining it for everyone else.
Tell me a little about this upcoming landing on Feb. 18: What can we expect? What are scientists hoping to accomplish?
It’s kind of hard to send a craft to Mars and say — go look for life. But based on the data that was provided earlier on, the NASA mantra with regards to space exploration is ‘follow the water.’ By understanding what happened with water, we’ll have a much better idea of Mars’ history as a planet: Were conditions there ever conducive to life? Did life ever exist on Mars? That’s the overarching context in which we’re exploring Mars.
Perseverance (the rover launched in this latest mission) is another rover similar to Curiosity (which landed successfully in 2012). The biggest improvement is that it’s not solar powered. They carry what can best be described as a nuclear battery — basically a can with a bunch of special plutonium in it, the kind that slowly decays into lead and emits heat as it does that, which powers the rover.
Perseverance is paving the way for a planned mission in the next 10 years or so to send a robot to retrieve samples and then bring them back to Earth. Perseverance won’t bring back samples from Mars, but it will identify the places on Mars where we should take samples on a future mission.
It’s also carrying a very simple helicopter that weighs about four pounds. The idea is to demonstrate this technology with the intention of on future missions having a helicopter scout that can go ahead of the rover and send back images of the terrain it might be driving through the next day. That is fascinating to me. Until now, the only aircraft of any sort flown on another planet have been two helium balloons flown by the Soviet Union into Venus’s atmosphere.
This is the first powered aircraft, and if it’s successful, we can expect to see more helicopters on Mars.
Okay, last question — what’s your favorite sci-fi book or movie about Mars or space travel?
One of the movies that most struck me was called Deep Impact. There was some (scientific) flaw with it, but I appreciated that it was more respectful of the science with regards to space exploration and the substantial threat to Earth from all the space junk out there (that could cross into Earth’s orbit). It presented that threat in an 85% accurate way. The rest was dramatic license.
I adored the book The Martian, which is probably 98% scientifically accurate in describing what it would be like to try and survive on Mars. I haven’t seen the movie version, because it could well be that I’ll dislike it if it’s different than the book. My wife bought it for me — it’s still sitting there dusty.
Hiller Aviation’s Hangar Talk series presents “Red Planet Robots: The Exploration of Mars and the Mars Helicopter Scout” with museum educator Jon Welte, on Wednesday February 17th, at 7pm. Register in advance.
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