Go Deeper

Mission to Mars: The First Rover

Posted September 7th, 2011

Before the 2011 Live Arts Festival show Red Rovers, before the rovers Opportunity and Spirit crawled all over the Martian surface for years, and before the launch of their predecessor, Sojourner, there was a man. His name was Barnes. John Barnes. In college, we had long, meaningful discussions about religion, politics, and whether he could drink an entire keg of Killian’s Irish Red. He owned a broadsword. Which he once used to chase away the “Eat Me” cart from which another floor of our dorm sold food to raise money for various endeavors. He was the second person I met who hailed from West Virginia. This is undergraduate life at the University of Chicago, and these are not lies.

He studied math and physics, and in the late 1990s was looking for a job that was better than, for example, mine (at an on-campus library-basement coffee shop, which, in due time, fired me). And he got one: programming software for the Mars Pathfinder project, which featured that first Mars rover, Sojourner.

We hadn’t spoken in a really long time, so I figured that Red Rovers, which is running right now at Live Arts, was a good excuse to catch up. But you don’t care about our personal lives, so I also asked him some questions about Mars.

After the jump: how to get your name on a Martian plaque, meet Al Gore, the value of nonhuman space travel, and become the first man to analyze a rock from another planet.

How did you get involved with Pathfinder?
Like many college students I needed a job, and I worked briefly doing a lab prep and stuff. I got bored with that, and started asking professors if they needed assistance, and if they knew anybody that did. After a couple of six-degrees of that, I found a couple different opportunities. One was a cryogenics lab, one would have required me to go to Antarctica every 6 months, and the third was working on space-related instruments for the Mars mission. In December of 1994, nobody had heard of what that finder was at that point. It was in the working stages but looked promising.

What was your job exactly?
Starting out it was mainly running samples. Testing how accurate the instrument was and making tweaks. I was doing basic data analysis that we were getting back from the instrument. After a certain amount of time, we were able to determine the elemental composition of the rock or soil we were looking at. The first generation of this was used on lunar Surveyor missions. Using solid state and integrated circuits we could reduce the instrument from the size of a basketball to the size of a baseball.

How did your name get on a plaque on Mars?

I was told it was something that Carl Sagan started in the 1970s. What they start with is a large poster size sheet of paper, sectioned off, and people signed different cells. Then it’s digitized, shrunk down, laser-etched on a small gold plate, put directly on the equipment, and that’s still sitting there on the surface of Mars.

And you meet Al Gore?

[Laughs.] Yeah. He came by two or three weeks after all this happened. He was on a tour of the country pushing the tax credit or some new scholarship $ for students. While he was [in Chicago] he decided to come by the lab and see what we were doing. He was a personable fellow.

The story I tell though, is adjacent to where they did the press conference on tax cuts and those things. They were debuting this new tech from Apple where they could stitch pictures together. They printed 360-degree off-color pictures to get a 3D effect of the Mars surface. [Chicago] Mayor Richard M. Daley, Senator Dick Durbin, Representative Bobby Rush were all there. The scientists were showing them a few of the rocks they looked at on the surface. We were standing there with these powerful guys all wearing 3D glasses, and I was introducing them to rocks named Barnacle Bill, Yogi Bear, and Scooby Doo.

Why did you name them after cartoon characters?
NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory decided to go with their favorite cartoon characters. There was also Flat Top, after the Dick Tracy character, and one rock was called Shark Fin too, because it looked like a shark fin.

What were the important findings of the mission?
There was a large amount of sulfur in the rocks. The area where we landed was near a dead volcano called Olympus Mons, which is something like as big around as Arizona and three times taller taller than Mount Everest. Mars is smaller than the earth, so it’s like a big temple on the side of the planet. We expected a lot of rocks to be igneous in nature, but we were finding larger amounts of sulfur in the rocks than if they were volcanic in origin. To have that amount we were finding, you’d have to have a fluid deposit them in sedimentary form over millions of years–that meant we were looking at was a lake or a river or something like that. Cosmochemists debated whether it was a body of water or a body of liquid carbon dioxide. I think that water has the upper hand right now, but I don’t think CO2 has been ruled out, because Mars’s atmosphere is almost entirely CO2. Either way, there was a stable body of liquid for a long period of time, and that might point to interesting things that happened in Mars’s past. Humans evolved out of similar types of pools. That’s always the card that people wanted to play to get more money for research: maybe we’ll find life.

How risky is this kind of research, and why didn’t you pursue it further?
I was looking at some of the carcasses of careers that had been created by space. One physicist I knew had some kind of solar mission. Congress had reset the funding and had a new contractor that NASA picked for the batteries. When it launched, the battery failed, and there was no mission—all the grant money and the research that was planned went away, and suddenly he’s out of work. All you need is one piece of the paper clip chain to fall apart, and often times you get nothing out of it. Despite the wonder in the job it kind of took the luster off the idea of pursuing it further.

That’s why I was so fortunate that we succeeded with that one. This is when NASA was launching their faster, cheaper, smarter campaign. We advocated it the whole time. The cost difference between human and nonhuman research is drastic. You get 98 percent of the scientific return for 2 percent of the cost. You get a lot more bang for your buck with unmanned missions. Entire mission was around $200 million; at the time that was notable because it cost less than the movie Waterworld. And was much more successful, thank God.

What was the most dramatic moment for you in your work?

The biggest part of the experience for me was after I finished the analysis on Barnacle Bill, and I realized that I was looking at the first analysis of a rock from another planet that’s ever been done in history. It’s a unique feeling that you get from that, largely a feeling of accomplishment. After I sent it off, I was running around campus and stopping tour groups and showing them, telling them that it was the first one.

Headlong’s Red Rovers runs for four more shows, tonight through September 10, at the Live Arts Studio, 919 N. 5th Street, Northern Liberties. Times vary, $25 to $30.

All photos by NASA.

–Nicholas Gilewicz