Live From Mars was active July 1996-December 1997.

My Journals


Off to a Running Start

by Jack Farmer

Week of March 10, 1997

This week is off to a running start with meetings and several important writing assignments. And I am also taking the time to reorganize my office! I received some bad news this week that I will share with you later, but first some job highlights.

I have been given the responsibility to help organize a workshop here at NASA Ames on the topic of Evolutionary Biology. The problem is, NASA needs to support more research in this science area, but to really do that effectively, we must target those aspects of the very broad field of Evolutionary Biology that are the most crucial to NASA's mission. That mission as I see it is to "explore the living universe," to discover if we are alone in the cosmos and to help humans explore the environment of space (toward what Capt. Kirk would call "the final frontier").

Part of our task in this workshop is to educate our supervisors at NASA Headquarters about the field of Evolutionary Biology, what it encompasses and what research areas in that field are most relevant to NASA's goals. To do that we are going to invite some of the top scientists from across the country to talk to us about what they find most exciting in the field, and where they see the field going over the next few years. The group will be small (perhaps 15 total), advisory in nature and hopefully informal. So, to help get that "off the ground" I have been calling lots of people and trying to entice them to join us for two days in April. This would seem easy enough were it not for the fact that most of the people we are inviting are college teachers with lots of other responsibilities and we are not giving them much notice to plan!

I also have several pressing writing assignments this week that have to be completed and it is hard to find large blocks of uninterrupted time to think. Writing is not easy for me. I need to have silence and no distractions to really be efficient. The challenge for me is the telephone, email, and the casual drop-in who just wants to chat. I am considering taking a time management course that will help me balance these things more effectively. But it is important to talk with colleagues, and one does not just close the door day after day and not pay a price. But maybe if I set aside some specific blocks of time for such things, I won't feel so bad about closing my door occasionally.

So what's so important that I should have to hide and write? I'm presently a member of an advisory committee for NASA called the Mars '01 Science Definition Team. Our group has the responsibility of identifying the most important science objectives for the orbital and landed missions that will be launched in 2001, making recommendations to NASA Headquarters so they can construct an Announcement of Opportunity or "A.O." for release to the broader scientific community. The A.O. will basically be an invitation to the outside science world to propose research projects and instruments that could be flown to Mars in the year 2001. These experiments and their supporting technologies will be expected to address one or more of the science objectives identified by our group.

My assignment is to add my contributions to the draft document and comment on what others have already written. This is very important because the '01 mission opportunity must provide certain types of supporting data that will be needed to guide us to the right place on Mars for a sample return mission that will be launched in 2005. That returned sample should come from a place that has a good chance of containing a record of past life. There is a lot riding on the preceding missions, and especially '01, which will be our last chance to get really high-resolution mapping from orbit. On one hand, this all seems pretty far off, but in actuality, it is just around the corner.

Another thing I have to write up this week is a review of a manuscript that was sent to me some time ago by a science magazine called "The Journal of Sedimentary Research." As scientists, we are expected to perform this service on occasion, providing a critique of other scientist's work. It is called the peer-review system and it is the way the science community at large operates to ensure that the best quality work gets published. It is true that lots of things get published that are poorly done and probably wrong, but there is a certain class of journals that operates on the peer-review system which is highly regarded, and having your work appear in one of those journals means that it has survived critical review and is now regarded as solid science. So, about once every month or two I receive a paper to review from one of the journals in my field, and I try and do my best to give a good critique that will help the peer-review process along. After all, the next time it will be someone else's turn to review a paper, and perhaps it will be one I have written!

This morning I spent time in the lab doing a particle size analysis of a sample that my science colleague Andy Cheng sent to me. Andy is an engineer and is developing a robotic sampling device to collect rocks on Mars. The device will go on a rover and includes a corer that is fired by an explosive charge into the surface of a rock. The coring device is designed to enter the rock and capture a piece of it along with some of the powder that is formed. The idea is that the larger sample pieces could be collected for sample return and the powder delivered to another device on the rover which will analyze it for the mineral or organic content. My task is to determine the range of particle sizes produced by the explosive corer, the grain shapes and their composition.

I am doing the grain size work using a standard sieving method where we shake the sample down through sieving screens of different mesh sizes and measure the fraction of the total sample that is retained on each screen. From that we can plot up a size-frequency distribution and determine the size range of materials produced by the method. Knowing this is important for understanding what kinds of analyses can be done on the samples and how to best design systems that will deliver samples to the instruments carried on the rover. The results of the grain size analysis will go to Andy on Wednesday and he will include them in a presentation we are making at the Lunar Planetary Science Conference in Houston next week.

I received some bad news this week. One of my colleagues and friends, Rick Hutchinson, was killed in an avalanche in Yellowstone National Park. Rick was a wonderful guy, dedicated and friendly, and a great help to people like me who go to Yellowstone Park each year to do research. Rick was the park geologist and had worked in Yellowstone as a ranger for many years. He helped me out numerous times during the past five years or so, helping me to get to out-of-the-way places to do my work. He was an expert on the thermal features in the park and knew almost every hot spring or geyser in Yellowstone and how they behaved. Last week he was guiding a visiting researcher into an area in Yellowstone called Heart Lake to look at some of the thermal springs there. They went in on skis. During the time they were in the area there was a snow avalanche that caught them, and they did not make it out alive. This is very sad for all of us who knew Rick, but we also know how much he loved what he did, and how much he cared about Yellowstone. I like to think he probably would not have wanted to leave us in his sleep, but rather the way he did--out and about, doing his useful, friendly things to help others. I'll miss him a lot!