Reilly Center Forum - Erik M. Conway. “Dreaming of Mars Sample Return, from Viking to the Mars Science Laboratory”

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Location: 200 McKenna Hall

Erik M. Conway, “Dreaming of Mars Sample Return, from Viking to the Mars Science Laboratory”

Planetary scientists have long wanted to bring samples of the other planets back to Earth for analysis. They routinely argue that better instrumentation exists on Earth than can be delivered to a planetary surface; that samples brought back to Earth can foster a broader range of experiments than can be sent into space; that returned samples can be re-examined as scientific instrumentation improves. The lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions to the Moon are the totemic examples, subject to research for decades since their return.

To date, though, only pieces of Earth’s Moon, samples of solar wind, and cometary dust have been returned. All current “samples” of Mars that exist on Earth are meteorites blasted off Mars by asteroid impacts. Despite this unhappy fact, the desire for sample return has driven technology development since (at least) the 1976 Viking landings on Mars. Drawing on my recently completed history of Mars exploration, this paper will illuminate the way scientists’ dreams of returning bits of Mars to Earth have played out at JPL in design studies, technology programs, and in flight projects since the end of the Viking missions.

It will parallel this narrative with a discussion of a NASA's internal schizophrenia, between its self-identity as a scientific agency and its identity as an agent of human expansion into the solar system. This has led to ongoing competition for leadership and funding between its scientific and human exploration programs that has made achievement of sample return impossible to date and currently imperils planetary science as a whole.


Erik Conway, PhD, is a historian at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. He has recently finished a book manuscript on the exploration of Mars. He is the author of Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History (2008), Blind Landings: Low-Visibility Operations in American Aviation, 1918-1958 (2006), and High-Speed Dreams: NASA and the Technopolitics of Supersonic Transportation, 1945-1999 (2005). He is also co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010) with Naomi Oreskes.

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