Dr. Joel Levine: The Exploration and Colonization of Mars: Why Mars? Why Humans?

Dr. Joel Levine

TRANSCRIPT: 

Let me tell you how special this is for me. I’ve worked, as Andy said, at NASA for 41 years.

I was involved in half a dozen successful missions to Mars. I presented over 500 presentations about the results in 50 countries around the world, and yet today is the first time they put makeup on my face before I gave the talk.

So it’s been a unique experience for me, too. We’ve been talking a lot about passion and uncommon – those two words – and I want to tell you my passion. I was twelve years old in Brooklyn, New York and — Brooklyn, New York is known for its Brooklyn onions, as we heard earlier.

I happened to look at a textbook that just came to the library, and I saw something that left the tremendous impression. I saw this picture of planet Mars. It was taken with the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope in California, and I remember staring at this picture and thinking about another world like the Earth. Is there life on it? What’s this world like?

Because of this passion for Mars, a year later, I was given by my grandmother a telescope, an astronomical telescope, and I started looking through the telescope, looking at Mars. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and the uncommon part of my talk is: here’s a 13 to 14-year-old, thinking he can do astronomy with a telescope in New York City.

But fortunately, this passion remained, and I had a very interesting career of which I’ll talk about. So after my first experiences with a small telescope in New York City, I was offered a job by NASA and accepted it, and several decades later, I was a major contributor to NASA’s plan for getting to Mars. It’s called “The Human Exploration of Mars”, the reference architecture number five; that’s because they did four earlier ones that didn’t go anywhere.

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This is the front cover, this is the back cover. When NASA announced that they were going to send humans to Mars and return them safely – unlike some private companies which will just deliver them on Mars and leave them there, we will bring our astronauts back.

The question NASA was asked is: why Mars? Why do we want to go to Mars?

In 2007, – I was working at NASA Headquarters in the Mars Exploration Program – they asked me to form and co-chair the committee to come up with a scientific rationale. So we spent three years, thirty of the top Mars scientists in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and we came up with a list of about 150 reasons, scientific reasons for getting to Mars.

Because I only have 18 minutes, I can only talk about two of these reasons. The first is: is there past or present life on Mars? Clearly, the detection of life on Mars is a game-stopper, show-stopper, it impacts everything; goes well beyond planetary science.

If we find life on Mars today, and if we can show it’s indigenous life, life that formed on Mars, it will make tremendous advances in our understanding of biochemistry, a molecular structure of life, and it will provide information on the human body, and how to treat diseases that we haven’t even thought about, because all forms of life on Earth – people who come to TED, elephants, giraffes, molecular scale, a biochemical scale – they’re the same.

They’re packaged differently, but it’s basically the same biochemistry, the same molecular structure.

If we find indigenous life on Mars, is it the same? That’s a fundamental question of great importance not only to the planetary scientists, but for medical researchers and so on.

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