Reflections on what motivates a Christian scientist's exploration of Mars
By Roger Wiens
Roger Wiens, who traces his career in planetary science to childhood exploits in Mountain Lake, Minn., with his older brother, is among the scientists currently exploring Mars thanks to the successful landing of the Curiosity rover. What prompts a Christian to embark on a career exploring space?
All systems were “go” for the rocket launch in the vacant lot behind our home in Mountain Lake, Minn. The year was 1971. My older brother and I, age 11, were the only ones present. I proceeded with the countdown: “3…2…1…Launch!”
A wisp of smoke curled from the bottom of the 28-inch tall rocket as the igniter wire burned momentarily, and then the engine lit. Whoosh. The little rocket soared off the pad. The first stage separated and the second stage ignited with a pop, propelling the model out of sight. My brother, Doug, held the walkie-talkie that was receiving radio signals from the model on this maiden voyage of our transmitting payload, a new addition to our space-age hobby.
Fast-forward 40 years to November 2011. I am standing on a row of bleachers looking across a small Florida bay at a 200-foot-tall Atlas V rocket four miles away at Cape Canaveral. Surrounding me are more than 50 engineers who have designed and constructed the instrument our team delivered to NASA. About a thousand other people have joined us at the viewing stand on this sunny morning.
The national anthem finishes playing over the loudspeaker and the countdown clock shows less than a minute to go. The crowd rises to its feet as the final seconds tick off. At T = 0 we see a flame appear under the vehicle as it lifts off the pad, gains speed and passes through a cloud and then arcs out over the ocean. Moments later the sound of the massive rocket engines reaches our ears. From our safe vantage point the huge rocket looks uncannily like the small models Doug and I launched as kids. But this one is carrying a one-ton, six-wheeled rover the size of a car on its way to Mars (Roger pictured above with rover). On the rover is our laser instrument called ChemCam.
My involvement in the mission started in December 2004 when I received a call from NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., telling me that our instrument had been selected for the next mission to Mars. I had submitted a proposal for a novel device to analyze rocks and soils on the red planet without ever having to drive up or touch the samples.
The technique works by firing laser pulses at samples from up to 25 feet away and recording the flash of light from the impact spot. The color of the light produced when a small amount of rock is vaporized tells us about the composition of the rock. The ChemCam instrument also takes high-resolution pictures of the samples it analyzes.
Half of ChemCam was built in New Mexico and the other half was built in southern France, funded by the French government. After testing the complete instrument over the course of a couple of years, my team delivered the unit to the rover in late 2010.
And now the rover, named “Curiosity,” was on its way to Mars, set to land August 5. It is only the fifth to operate on the red planet. Curiosity is by far the biggest vehicle ever sent to Mars. At nearly 10 feet long and nine feet wide and weighing 2,000 pounds, it is the size of a small SUV.
Curiosity has an arm that extends over six feet in front of the vehicle and contains a drill, a brush and a microscope. The arm is also designed to deliver samples to two instruments inside the body of the rover. One will determine the mineral structure of rocks on Mars. The other will investigate elements like carbon and nitrogen to look for organic materials and will sniff for methane, a bi-product of living organisms. Curiosity also carries a weather station and stereo cameras.
Childhood dreams lead to career
For me this work is the product of a long-standing desire to explore Mars, going back to my childhood. I was strongly influenced by my older brother, Doug. Being somewhat of a genius, he studied the specific impulse of rocket engines when he was just a grade school kid. He also joined a national amateur astronomy group that made observations and reported them for use by professional astronomers. The organization didn’t ask our age, so we were allowed to join. No one knew we were just kids!
Doug went on to become a world-famous seismologist and a leader at a major university. Being two years younger than Doug, I was interested in everything he did, and so he shared his rocketry and astronomy hobbies with me. Although I never expected to, I ended up making a career in science as well.
Planetary science is not a field populated by many evangelical Christians. What caused me to go into the sciences? First of all, it was providential. But four ideas have kept me going in my career.
1. Seeing my job as my mission. I believe God places us where we are for a purpose. When I was younger I assumed that my career should involve doing something overtly Christian, such as working in missions or doing relief work in a third-world country. As a young adult I spent a lot of time in prayer over my future.
But the opportunities that I expected in those areas never materialized. Instead, a job working for NASA fell into my lap and then another NASA job, and so on. I believe God wants us to do well what he calls us to do, so I have pursued excellence in my vocation.
2. Recognition that “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” This phrase is the beginning of Psalm 19, which goes on to say, “The skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge… They use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth.”
One thing that I remember from going to church as a child is the front covers of the weekly bulletins. There was an inspiring picture: a majestic mountain; a lush, green meadow in spring; a mountain stream reappearing from under the winter snow or, after the Apollo Moon missions, a view of planet Earth from the Moon. Most often a psalm about God’s majesty accompanied the images.
If images inspire us to consider God’s greatness, how much more should the details behind these images inspire us? And so these details, summarily considered science, are the voice in Psalm 19 telling us of the glory of God. Altogether, science tells us of the greatness of God. We would do well to listen more.
3. Understanding that “all truth is God’s truth.” Philippians 4:8 encourages us to think on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable.”
Science is a search for truth about God’s creation. I believe God commends us to satisfy our curiosity about his creation through the study of science. This stands in contrast to the view that we have to guard ourselves against heresies taught in the name of science.
The real question in these situations is, “What is true?” Unfortunately, it seems that many believers are hesitant to really search out the truth in various areas of science. In my associations with scientists of all religious—and “nonreligious”—backgrounds, I find that most scientists are really searching for truth.
4. Pursuing exploration as worship. No matter what motivation others have for doing science, we can do it to explore God’s creation, to understand more of his nature. This is exploration with a far greater purpose than simply to satisfy our curiosities or to exploit new discoveries.
Compared to a century or more ago, we now know that the universe is vastly larger than was ever conceived in previous times; the human genome is amazingly more intricate than might have been fathomed; far more species exist on earth than thought possible; and living organisms inhabit more extreme places than we ever previously considered. Doesn’t that tell us something very exciting about the Creator? By bringing to light these amazing details we are pointing out the excellence of the One who brought about all of these things. That is worship.
Exploring the red planet
Getting back to the Curiosity mission to Mars, one of the primary goals is to determine the habitability of our neighboring planet. Was it ever hospitable for life? Once thought to be a dry and dead planet, we now know that there were rivers, lakes and likely oceans on Mars in the past. Sedimentary rock layers are piled several miles high, indicating the major role that water played in the past, similar to on earth.
One such mound of sedimentary layers is the destination for our rover. If we were to find evidence of past living organisms—single-celled microbes—would it be such a surprise? C.S. Lewis, the renowned Christian apologist of the last century, wrote an essay called “Religion and Rocketry.” In it he raises the question of whether it shocks us that God could create life on other worlds.
Unfortunately, Christians are often stuck not thinking creatively—outside the box—enough even though we have a multitude of examples of God’s creativity in how he interacted with people in the Bible. And so we need people like C.S. Lewis and scientists like Galileo, Newton, Kepler and others in our day, to think outside the box and to discover new things.
I hope you will join me in following the Curiosity mission as it explores Mars.
Roger Wiens is a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Over the last 25 years he has researched and given talks on various aspects of planetary science, from Jupiter's moons to the composition of the Sun. Wiens received his training in Physics from Wheaton College and the University of Minnesota. Some of his work is highlighted in the e-magazine, God and Nature, athttp://asa3.org/zine/?cat=35.
Readers can follow the action at the Curiosity rover's website:http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/or at the ChemCam instrument website: http://msl-chemcam.com/. Wiens’ book on his space exploration adventures, Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration From Genesis to Curiosity, will be published this coming fall with Basic Books.You can also check out this You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20nVBvf9KUo