Roving the red planet

RPI dean shares Mars curiosity

Saturday, January 19, 2013
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Laurie Leshin (second from left), along with NASA colleagues, celebrating the Curiosity landing. (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Laurie Leshin (second from left), along with NASA colleagues, celebrating the Curiosity landing. (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As a young girl trying to determine her future, Laurie Leshin was constantly looking up and down. Down at the numerous rocks scattered around the Arizona countryside and up at the millions of stars in the night sky of the American Southwest.

Then in June 1976, 10-year-old Laurie picked up the family’s latest issue of Time magazine and was amazed to see images from the surface of Mars taken by Viking 1. It wasn’t an epiphanic experience, but it helped her discover how her two interests could be connected, and it certainly enabled her to zero in on a career path.

“I saw those pictures from the Viking lander and I thought how the surface of Mars looked pretty familiar,” said Leshin, dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It looked a lot like the Phoenix landscape I was growing up in. I just wanted to reach out and touch those rocks. I was too young to appreciate Apollo [11], so for me my interest in space and the solar system was always about Mars and the Viking lander.”

‘Curiosity on Mars: Roving the Red Planet’

WHAT: A talk by Laurie Leshin of RPI on Curiosity and NASA’s 2012 mission to Mars

WHERE: GE Theatre at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 7:30 Tuesday

HOW MUCH: $15, $5 for students

MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org

Leshin will talk about her passion for astronomy and geology at 7:30 Tuesday night as part of the Dudley Observatory’s Skyway Lecture Series at Proctors. Her talk, titled “Curiosity on Mars: Roving the Red Planet,” will focus on NASA’s most recent voyage to Mars using Curiosity, a car-sized robotic rover that reached the planet on Aug. 6.

Sharing experiences

Leshin, who worked as NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate before coming to RPI, was part of an international team of scientists that worked on Curiosity and its fact-finding mission. During her presentation, she will share several recent images of Mars taken by the lander.

“I’m going to talk about our seven minutes of terror,” she said, referring to the time it took Curiosity to enter the Martian atmosphere and land on the planet surface while going from 13,000 mph to zero. “It was quite a feat of engineering, and it produced some great results. It was very exciting learning how to drive our rover on Mars. It was like having a new baby. You didn’t want to mess it up.”

From her first introduction to Viking I to her current work with Curiosity, Leshin has immersed herself in science.

“I knew I had to take a lot of math and science courses, but at first I wasn’t really sure how to make a career out of this,” she said. “I went to Arizona State University, and during the summer I had an internship with NASA in Houston. It was like a lightning bolt. I got to do research on Mars with the Viking, and I was discovering all kinds of things about the other planets. I loved it.”

Leshin went on to graduate from ASU in 1987, then finished her Ph.D. in geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1994.

“After I finished up my Ph.D., I stayed on a pretty academic path,” she said. “I got on the faculty at Arizona State, got my tenure and all that stuff and had some great experiences. But I wanted to diversify a little bit, and when I had the opportunity to start working for the government I did it, in a couple of different leadership positions.”

After six years, Leshin returned to the academic world, taking over as dean of RPI’s School of Science in October of 2011. She remains part of the international team working with the Curiosity effort.

Uniting two realms

“RPI has an amazing reputation in engineering and it continues to be a world leader in that field,” she said. “What we need is for science to be on that same footing as engineering. We need that same level of expertise, and my job in this administrative position is to provide leadership to get us there. We’re looking for excellence in both realms.”

Leshin, who was born in Boston before moving west with her family at the age of 3, said she almost went to RPI for her graduate studies.

“I was accepted to grad school at RPI in the 1980s, but I guess I wasn’t ready to head back to the Northeast,” she said. “I find the history here so fascinating, and one of the strong points about the school is that it places the fundamental values of research and education on equal footing.”

As for NASA and the American outlook in space, she concedes that things have been a bit constrained.

“Funding is tight, and everyone is dealing with the practical realities of less funding,” said Leshin. “But we flew the shuttle for 30 years and it was amazing. Now we’re getting commercial companies more involved, but I think human space exploration is still in a very exciting time. The robots are doing a lot of the work, but even when we use robots it’s still a human controlling the robotics. So to me, it’s all human exploration. The robots don’t discover anything, the humans do.”

Americans are still passionate about the space program according to Leshin, as evidenced by the response in October to the retirement of the Endeavour space shuttle to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

“I was there when the space shuttle was flown into L.A. and driven across the city streets to its new home,” she said.

“It was phenomenal how people came out to look at it. When it was flying over the city people stopped their cars on the freeway to look at it. People lined the streets in the middle of the night to get a look at it. There’s still great love and enthusiasm for the program. What I thought was neat was how we had over a million more hits on our website about the space shuttle than the movie ‘Twilight.’ I think that gives me some real hope about the future.”

Award winner

Leshin was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2004 for her work on the Presidential Commission and was also recipient of the Outstanding Leadership Medal in 2011 for her work at NASA. The passion she’s demonstrated for her work helped her become the inaugural recipient of The Meteoritical Society’s Nier Prize in 1996, the award going for outstanding research in meteoritics or planetary science by a scientist under the age of 35. The International Astronomical Union also recognized Leshin by naming asteroid 4922 after her.

“What we’re trying to understand now is the history of waters on Mars,” said Leshin, who said she specializes in the field of cosmochemistry. “Is it linked to habitability? Can we find out whether or not life started there? Places like Mars could be a great destination for humans.”

 

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