Podcast: Flight on Mars—An Interview with Smithsonian’s Ellen Stofan

After a successful first flight of the Ingenuity on Mars, Ellen Stofan, the under secretary for science and research at the Smithsonian Institution, talks with Aviation Week editors about the historic nature of the mission, coming 117 years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Once astronauts start journeying to Mars, Stofan says, the 4 lb. rotorcraft should be brought back to Earth to take its place at the Air and Space Museum.

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Rush transcript:

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Jen DiMascio:

Hi, and welcome to the Aviation Week Check 6 podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for Defense and Space. And I'm here with Aviation Week's space editor, Irene Klotz, and a very special guest, Ellen Stofan, the Undersecretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian Institution.

Jen DiMascio:

Ellen comes here after leading the Air and Space Museum, and previously from NASA, where she helped plan to get humans to Mars. But we're here today because of a really thrilling development this morning. NASA flew Ingenuity, an aircraft, for the first time on another planet, in Mars's very thin atmosphere. So I'm going to turn this over to Irene, who I'm sure has a lot of questions for Ellen about this historic achievement.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks, Jen. And welcome, Ellen. This was all a very long time coming. And I know that it's a significant step for future exploration of Mars. It's been likened to the '97 landing of the Pathfinder mission, with the prototype rover Sojourner. And we see what that led to, including Ingenuity's ride to Mars. Ellen, can you maybe talk a little bit about, as a planetary scientist, what aerial abilities bring to the exploration table?

Ellen Stofan:

Yeah. Well, I will say, on this day where I'm still, frankly, just overcome by the immense this morning, I put this in an even broader context, as having had the responsibility for a while of caring for the 1903 Wright flier. This is the first powered flight on another planet. Just let that blow your mind for a minute. Because this is huge, historically. And so it's really exciting.

Ellen Stofan:

So if we go to that fundamental level, oh my gosh, look what we did on Mars, it's incredibly exciting. But this idea of having multiple modes of mobility. Rovers are great, especially when you want to go from rock to rock and analyze the composition, and we're looking for past life on Mars, we really need that rover capability.

Ellen Stofan:

But you also want the ability to go longer distances more rapidly, and you can only do that by air. But Mars is such a challenge because of that thin atmosphere. But, the Ingenuity team, they showed perseverance and ingenuity, and they did it.

Irene Klotz:

This first flight lasted for 39 seconds. And I know that there's a series of flights to come. What else do you think needs to be demonstrated, before it would give NASA the confidence to go through with a proposal, science-laden mission? Or is just this first flight enough?

Ellen Stofan:

I think what we really want to see is that ability of this little helicopter to do reconnaissance. Because, especially when you're thinking of humans on the surface of Mars, and when you're thinking of wanting to know, "Should I go over that ridge? Or should I go over the next ridge?" Yes, we have data from orbit, but really getting the details, by being able to do reconnaissance.

Ellen Stofan:

So I'm looking forward to the flights of Ingenuity that really demonstrate its ability to go outward, do a little path finding. This is just a demonstration. Perseverance isn't relying on it. But I think that ability to be a recon aircraft is something that's in the plans for Ingenuity to demonstrate. And that will help us say, "How do we use aerial mobility in the future on Mars, to help not just robotic exploration, but to help human exploration?"

Irene Klotz:

So, putting on your geology or planetary geologist hat for a moment, if you had the ability to fly somewhere on Mars and take a look, where would you want to go?

Ellen Stofan:

Well, the regions we most want to go are regions where we really don't want people right now. And that's where we think there could be water close to the surface. And there's a lot of places like that. Some of these cracks that we've seen along the side slopes of craters on Mars, that seem to change seasonally, where there's been some scientists who have suggested that's because there's water close to the surface.

Ellen Stofan:

Now, why do we care about that? We think that about three and a half to 4 billion years ago, the conditions on early Mars were similar to the conditions on early Earth when life evolved. So if life evolved on Mars, when Mars became cold and radiated at the surface, if Mars' life could have retreated underground, following the water as the water went underground. So areas where water comes close to the surface is, frankly, where we don't want to send humans in the future.

Ellen Stofan:

We really want to go and recon those areas with this kind of technology, with aerial modal ability, to say, "Is there water close to the surface? Can we find that out before we even send a rover or human in, that could contaminate it? Or maybe pick up a single-celled organism that we really don't want to pick up?"

Irene Klotz:

Is there any particular aside ... You're referring, I think, to the recurring slope linea, the RSL. Is there any other regions of Mars that would be interesting to take a look at from the air?

Ellen Stofan:

There's so many that I can't even come ... The interesting thing is there was actually a report that came out. I'm trying to think, I think it was two or three years ago, where the scientific community actually came forward and said, "These are zones where we think that maybe humans shouldn't go, because there could be water close to the surface." And the name of the report ... It was a National Academy, I think, study.

Ellen Stofan:

Those are all the areas. And there are a lot of them on Mars, which is really exciting. Because, again, while I'm someone who really thinks about how we have to go find fossil evidence of life on Mars, the idea that there could still be extant or living life is something that's really exciting.

Irene Klotz:

NASA has plans for the Dragonfly quadcopter on Titan in the works, even before this flight demo was done. Why was this flight necessary, to get the technological maturation for Mars craft, when there's this other one going forward on Titan?

Ellen Stofan:

The thing about Mars is we definitely are someday going to send humans to Mars. That, to me, is not an option. So making sure we have the robotic tools that humans can use in the future makes this technology demonstration more important. And, remember, with that thin atmosphere on Mars, this is a really hard place to fly. So this tech demo was really important.

Ellen Stofan:

I'm actually a co-investigator on the Dragonfly mission. And Titan is a whole other story, because Titan's atmosphere is actually slightly denser than the Earth's which makes it easier to fly. But the fun thing for this is we have physics, and we obviously have experimented for decades and decades, since 1903, with human powered flight. But taking that physics to a different atmosphere, one that's really thin, one that's slightly denser, it really pushes our understanding of flight. And that's really exciting on any level.

Irene Klotz:

With your role at the Smithsonian, I believe that the mission of the Smithsonian is to collect and disseminate knowledge on a very broad scale. What do you think about the pace of innovation now, compared to when you were first starting off in your career? And where does this amazing example of powered flight on Mars today fit in, in that whole continuum?

Ellen Stofan:

It's interesting, I will say, being the Director of the Air and Space Museum helped me really put this in perspective. Because I think, as a planetary scientist, you're so frustrated all the time. Because you're like, "Oh, I want to get back to Titan and explore the seas on Titan, and really understand the limits of life in the solar system. I want to get back to Venus and understand what Venus can teach us about a planet that took such a different evolutionary path." And you want to be everywhere all at once. And the pace seems really slow.

Ellen Stofan:

But going to the Air and Space Museum, and looking at what we accomplished from the 1903 Wright Flyer, to landing humans on the moon, to now powered flight on Mars, that's happened in an incredibly, incredibly short amount of time. And that really hit me, when Jim Lovell was telling me that his job at the Apollo 11 launch was to escort Charles Lindbergh. And you're just like, "Wait a minute. What?"

Ellen Stofan:

So the fact that all of this innovation has occurred in such a short time period, really in the scope of humanity, I think makes me take a breath. I'm impatient to see boots on Mars. I want to see that first woman exploring, and finding evidence of past life on Mars. But we are really moving forward.

Ellen Stofan:

And huge credit, and I want to make sure I get a shout out in to MiMi Aung and her whole team at [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)]. Because, boy, again, you go back to those words, perseverance and ingenuity, that helicopter team at JPL, they pushed and they pushed. And at times, I was like, "Maybe this is too risky." John Grunsfeld was a huge proponent and made this helicopter happen. It really did take a team of people really innovating to make this happen. And I love to see that it goes back to the tradition of the Wright Flyer, to see that kind of spirit.

Irene Klotz:

Well, this helicopter isn't going to get to hang in the Smithsonian. Is there anything that you can think of that would bring this chapter of the story of flight to people on Earth, in a tangible, salient way, like the museum does with so many artifacts?

Ellen Stofan:

Well, there's always the engineering model that, of course, the Air and Space Museum would love to have. But I'm not going to settle for that. Because I want the original Ingenuity helicopter sitting next to the Wright Flyer. It has a piece of the Wright Flyer fabric on it. There's no reason that a future human mission to the surface of Mars can't bring that back for the Smithsonian. And, in fact, I'm insisting on it. I've already told Thomas [inaudible 00:11:02], and he hasn't said no.

Irene Klotz:

That's great, Ellen. I think you just made news. Jen, is there anything you wanted to ask?

Jen DiMascio:

Well, yeah, a little bit. I mean, I just wanted to put this in the context of your work, in planning for putting humans on Mars. How does this help us get a little bit closer to reaching that goal?

Ellen Stofan:

When I think of human exploration of Mars, I really think of humans and robots working together. For a long time, people would have this, "Why do we need to send humans when we have robots?" But, actually, the power, to me, is humans working with robots on the surface.

Ellen Stofan:

Every mission we've been having to Mars, over about the last decade or so, has been pushing technology to get ready to send humans to Mars. And you see that on Perseverance with Moxie, which is actually taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and splitting the oxygen off. It's the first example of what we call in situ resource utilization. How do we learn to live off the land, so to speak, on Mars? It's that ingenuity, again, a tool that future astronauts could use for reconnaissance.

Ellen Stofan:

So every mission that we have to Mars now is testing technologies to get ready for humans to Mars. And I'm optimistic it's going to happen.

Irene Klotz:

What's your best estimate of the date? I've been covering space for 32 years, and Mars was always just around the corner.

Ellen Stofan:

I joke about the fact I think Mars has been 20 years away since I've been involved. So, yeah, I agree with you. My frustration is it has been 20 years away. And, frankly, when you look at that call of President Kennedy's to land humans on the surface of the moon, we were way further behind technologically in being able to do that, than we are in getting humans to Mars. Face it, we didn't have space suit technologies. We didn't know how to land on the ... We knew nothing.

Ellen Stofan:

We actually know Mars pretty well. We've been on the surface since 1976. We know how to do deep space navigation. Yes, there are technological challenges, no doubt. But if we put our minds to it, we could get to Mars within 10 to 15 years. Could we afford it? That's a different discussion. But I argue we could be on the surface of Mars easily within the next 20 years. It just is going to take the will to make it happen.

Irene Klotz:

What's your best argument for the case for humans to Mars? Why go?

Ellen Stofan:

We explore for lots of reasons, right? We explore for geopolitical reasons, like we did for going to the surface of the moon. Right now, you hear a lot of talk about exploring for economic reasons. Is there a benefit to private companies to explore?

Ellen Stofan:

But I'm a scientist. And so, to me, exploration is about knowledge. It's about pushing the boundaries. And when we think about the fact that there could be evidence of past life on Mars, that could represent a different origin of life. And we want to ask questions like, "Does it have RNA and DNA? What can it teach us about the fundamental nature of life?" That doesn't take one sample, it takes hundreds of samples to understand, not just did life evolve on Mars, what complexity did it get to? What form did it take?

Ellen Stofan:

So that, as a geologist, I can tell you that means breaking open hundreds of rocks, looking at hundreds of specimens. And I argue that's a discovery of profound importance. And it's going to take humans on the surface of Mars to do it.

Irene Klotz:

Do you think that because there's now other countries, China in particular, that has a very ... It seems a very stable and very incremental, steady buildup of its technological abilities. Do you think that that, in and of itself, is a reason to goad the U.S. efforts onward? Or do the international aspects of space exploration take a second seat to the goals of science?

Ellen Stofan:

There's no way we're going to get humans on the surface of Mars without all hands on deck. So that means international cooperation, it means public private partnerships. And so I don't look at it so much as competition, as I do opportunities for cooperation, and certainly things like worrying about where other country's going.

Ellen Stofan:

And I do think it's important, on a personal level, that the U.S. lead in space exploration. We always have. And, in my mind, we always should. It brings huge technological benefits back to this planet. It brings jobs. It brings economic benefit. It pushes technology forward. So we should continue to lead in space exploration.

Ellen Stofan:

But, to get humans to Mars, that's going to take international cooperation. And I really think you should look at the International Space Station as being a great model for how we should get humans to Mars.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks. If we have a little more time, NASA, on Friday, just announced this selection of SpaceX as its partner to develop a crude lunar lander. What kind of science on the moon are you interested in? And is this new way, of partnering with private sector, a model for Mars exploration as well, do you think?

Ellen Stofan:

I think it's a really exciting thing. As I said, it's hard to go to Mars. For much as I said, "Oh, it could be 10 to 15 years away," it's going to take everybody. And we've seen how companies like SpaceX, like Blue Origin, have really been pushing, pushing, pushing. And that's great, because that helps move us forward. And I think those kinds of partnerships are going to be part of getting humans to Mars.

Ellen Stofan:

For me, the most exciting work we're going to be doing at the moon is getting ready to go to Mars. So it's how do we keep humans healthy in a deep space radiation environment, where you're subjected not just to solar radiation, but to cosmic rays that are much more harmful. How are we going to do operations remote from Earth, where, "Houston, we have a problem," is no longer really an option.

Ellen Stofan:

So are we going to use artificial intelligence to help support astronauts as we move outward? Do we really understand how to keep our life support systems working for long periods of time? We're going to go out and test that at the moon. It's going to move science forward. It's going to move technology forward. And it's going to get us ready to go to Mars.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, thank you so much for joining us, and for your enthusiasm. It's really infectious. And this is a momentous milestone, that we were so glad to share it with you. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in to this edition of the Check 6 podcast, which is available for download on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Join us again next week for another edition. Thank you.

 

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.

Comments

1 Comment
Very Interesting - thank you!