Randii Wessen has designed missions to Mars and on Thursday encouraged Niskayuna High School students to design their dreams.
Wessen, who has spent 25 years at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Earth science students that he got a C in calculus, took five years to get his bachelor’s degree, had the lowest possible grade point average to earn a master’s degree and got turned down for teaching positions and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He said he didn’t give up and finally got his shot at working on space missions, so students shouldn’t quit after experiencing setbacks.
“You do not try, you definitely do not succeed,” he said.
Wessen’s dream was in the stars. As deputy manager of the project formula office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Wessen has been involved in the exploration of Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and Mars, including the Mars Exploration Rovers.
The first rover was launched in 2004 and expected to explore the planet for three months, according to Wessen. Instead, it lasted for seven years. The Mars Opportunity Rover is still going strong after nine years.
Wessen took the students on a virtual tour of the Red Planet using images and video projected on a screen. He said these rovers are “smart” and can sense if they are being commanded to move to a place that would send them into a crater.
“The rover is learning to drive its own self around the world,” Wessen said.
Mars, which is about half the size of Earth, is thought to have once supported life. Wessen said the geology on the surface is interesting. A volcano that is three times the size of Mount Everest covers a footprint the size of Arizona, and a grand canyon there would stretch across the length of the United States.
Craters are interesting to explore because the deeper into them you go, the farther back in time you go, according to Wessen.
“Starting at the bottom would be looking at Mars 3 billion years ago,” he said.
The planet is split into two distinct halves, according to Wessen. While the southern hemisphere has a lot of craters and volcanos, the northern hemisphere’s topography is low and doesn’t have many craters.
Wessen said scientists believe liquid water existed on the planet 3 billion years ago. The planet has water now, according to Wessen, but most of it is not in liquid form. Water vapor clouds can be seen in the Martian sky, and there is dry ice in channels where it looks like water used to flow.
“Could you have actually had life on Mars? That’s one of the things we’re trying to find today,” he said.
Another mystery scientists are investigating is what happened to most of the atmosphere of Mars.
The most difficult part about exploring space is leaving Earth’s gravity, according to Wessen. It costs about $1 million per pound to leave the Earth. “It’s $190 million to get me up there,” he said.
It took 7 minutes for the rover to descend through the atmosphere of Mars to its surface. He showed a video of the NASA scientists celebrating, cheering, hugging and even crying when the first rover touched down.
“There’s nothing like experiencing a landing,” he said.
Another rover mission will be launched in 2020, according to Wessen.
Wessen said it is important to explore space to satisfy human curiosity, to develop technology that can improve our lives and to increase our knowledge.
Scientists are constantly learning new things about the universe, Wessen said. They used to believe that there were more stars than planets. Now, they believe that there are more planets than the 200 billion to 400 billion stars.
Wessen believes that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe outside of Earth.
“I have a hard time believing that this is the best that nature can do,” he said, pointing to himself. “The idea that we are alone is totally crazy,” he said.
He encouraged the students to do something they enjoy for a career.
“If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he said.
Wessen’s visit was sponsored by GE Global Research and the Distinguished Lecture Program of The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He was giving a presentation later in the day to GE engineers.
Students seemed to enjoy the presentation, peppering Wessen with questions about space travel.
“I think it’s kind of cool that anyone might be able to go up one day,” said 15-year-old Quinn Tonjes.