First humans on Mars may walk a route planned at William & Mary

The first humans venturing out on the surface of Mars may well follow a route first planned out by a team of three William & Mary undergraduates.

Joel Levine will present a set of 22 student-authored proposals for Martian landing site explorations on May 7 at the international Humans 2 Mars Summit (H2M) at George Washington University. The proposals, gathered together in a web site, are the final projects from the William & Mary Planetary Geology course. Levine, research professor in applied science and geology, team-taught Planetary Geology this semester with Chuck Bailey, chair of the geology department.

Levine came to William & Mary after a 41-year career in NASA and is a veteran of several Mars missions. He co-chaired NASA’s Panel on Planning for the Scientific Exploration of Mars and co-edited the 974-page book, The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet, acknowledged as the seminal how-to and why-we-should-do-it work when it comes to putting people on the fourth planet from the sun. He said he came up with the idea for the final projects for Planetary Geology while recovering from cataract surgery.

“Chuck wants to give the students some real science to do for a project. He likes students to do useful research,” Levine said. “I was in bed and couldn’t read and that’s where it came to me.”

His idea was to have the 66 Planetary Geology students use some of the 58 potential Mars landing sites listed in The Human Mission to Mars as starting points for their projects. Levine and other leading Mars scientists had already fleshed out three of the 58 possible sites into “field trips,” scheduled sorties designed specifically for each site.

“A field trip shows specifically what the astronauts would do on the surface of Mars,” he explained. “We study what the humans will do, where they’ll walk and how they’ll get around.”

 The class of  66 students divided themselves into teams of three. About half of the class members were geology majors and the rest were majoring in physics, chemistry or biology. Once the teams were assembled, the potential landing sites on Mars were assigned by drawing lots.

The Human Mission to Mars” describes why each site is important for human exploration,” Levine explained. “There may be evidence of an ancient river or there may be evidence of life because there was once standing water. Each site has a unique feature that scientists would be interested in.”

The assignment was for each team to study the geology, mineralogy and topography of each site and to prepare a field trip. Their task, Levine said, boils down to “What would astronauts do once they get there?” Each team was to present their project and outline their proposal for a field trip in a four- to five-chart PowerPoint presentation at the end of the semester.

“The students were excited about this, because it wasn’t a make-work project,” Levine said. “And I told them that I was going to take posters from the top three projects to present at the Humans 2 Mars conference.”

It didn’t work out that way. Bailey and Levine were grading the field trip projects, working separately, and compared notes before class one day.

 “I said, ‘Chuck, these are really good,’” Levine said. “The lowest grade I’ve given is an A- and the highest was an A+.” Bailey said that the projects he was grading looked similarly excellent. It was beginning to be clear that picking out just three projects to take to H2M would be quite a challenge.

The teams’ PowerPoint-enhanced presentations didn’t make the winnowing any easier. Levine invited some former NASA colleagues to attend the first day of the presentation. He had worked with these engineers and project managers on NASA’s highly successful Viking Project, which launched twin robotic missions to Mars in 1975, with each Viking spacecraft composed of an orbiter and a lander.

“It turns out that the deputy project manager for management, the site selection manager and the mission manager of the Viking Project all live in Williamsburg,” Levine said. “They retired here.”

All three NASA veterans were happy to attend the Planetary Geology team’s presentations, and Levine said that they liked what they heard. Gus Guastaferro, the Viking deputy project manager for management, told the class he was blown away by the first day’s presentation. All of the Viking group asked to come back for the second day.

“The presentations were so good and the questions from the class and from the Viking people were so interesting that Chuck and I had to extend the presentation,” Levine said. “We didn’t finish on the second day, so we had to continue on a third day.”

The Viking crew ended up attending all three days of the presentations, and Levine noted that each day they stayed after the class period was over, talking with the students.

After the first day of strong presentations, Levine and Bailey talked through a way to solve their three-project selection problem. Instead of Levine carrying three posters to H2M, a web site would capture all 22 of the class field trip proposals.

“We couldn’t do 22 posters,” Levine said. “I couldn’t carry them all.”

Planetary Geology student Matt Sniff ’15 volunteered to put the web site together. Sniff is one of the founders of CollegeCambio.com, an online marketing venue for students.

“This way, instead of having three posters in the conference room, all 22 projects will be online for everyone to see,” Levine said.

Levine will make the presentation of the Planetary Geology projects as part of his session titled “H2M Science Objectives: What, Why How?” The Humans 2 Mars Summit is sponsored by Explore Mars, Inc., an advocacy group for the human exploration of Mars. The conference, held May 6-8 at George Washington University, Washington, DC, is billed as a discussion “to address the major technical, scientific, and policy-related challenges that need to be overcome to send humans to Mars by 2030.”

Conference speakers, all invited, include the NASA administrator, a dozen NASA senior managers representing NASA’s programs in planetary missions, human exploration and space technology and more than five dozen Mars scientists, planetary engineers and technologists.