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‘I consider myself a foot soldier in the exploration of Mars’

Geologist Larry Crumpler on his new book, Missions to Mars: A New Era of Rover and Spacecraft Discovery on the Red Planet.

I wrote Missions to Mars as a non-scientist-friendly presentation about Mars as viewed by people over the ages, looking at how we have started to unravel the secrets of the planet with the advent of the space age.

Many books about Mars are written in a somewhat factual way that omits some of the inside stories of the exploration process.

Having “been there” through the long slogging process – from the days when our best views of Mars were fuzzy telescopic images to the present when we are “ground pounding” on wheels in its alien landscapes – I felt I had a few words to add to the story about how we came to understand Mars today.  

The book is also a reflection on the difference between how we came to understand the geology of Earth from the ground outward to the global view versus how we resolved the geology of Mars from the other direction, the global view down to the ground. 

Missions to Mars is also about some of the personalities involved and what it was like to be on the first missions of exploration to a new world in many ways analogous to the adventures of explorers entering the New World here on Earth. 

But how do you embark on a career path that leads to this level of involvement in the first great journeys of exploration? 

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I grew up in the 50s and 60s when the space programme was just getting under way. It was clear that we were embarking on exploration of many of the planets and that we would behold many wonders in the course of that exploration.

Cue a kid who was seeing movies such as Forbidden Planet and other space stories set on strange new worlds and the glimmer of that personal fascination begins to be apparent.

These movies always showed a stark and alien landscape, often filled with colourful reds and bare rocks much like the south-western United States, and the early connection with geology was already starting to be apparent. But it was not the fossils that fascinated me so much as the story in the rocks. So, an interest in geology was planted.  

Meanwhile I continued to be fascinated by backyard astronomy, using my small telescope and reading many books about stars and planets. So the pattern was set and I had a dual interest in geology and in what was, at that time, called astronomy.

But I was really interested in these strange new landscapes on other planets. 

By the time college rolled around I had an idea what I wanted to do. The first missions were starting to send back awesome images and there were many questions about what they were showing. I wanted to participate in that exploration. But was it astronomy or geology?

At that time no one had ever embarked on the quest from the ground up, so it was unclear. I proceeded with what I perceived as my real interest – geology. Even as a child I had played in gullies and rocks pretending I was exploring new planets. 

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As I became a geologist every time I went into the field and mapped the geology of a previously uncharted area, I got the sense that I was exploring a new world.

When you map virgin terrain you are literally the first person on Earth to ‘see’ some of the geological events of the past and are truly an explorer of a new world.

At the same time, I continued to be interested in applying this method – field geology – to real new worlds. I was constantly on the lookout for opportunities in graduate school to participate in that exploration of other planets through the eyes of a geologist. 

An early chance to participate in the Viking mission to Mars in 1975 led to my involvement in many subsequent missions from Mars to Venus and beyond. 

Throughout my career I bounced back and forth between the real field geology on Earth and the geology of other worlds like Mars.

When the Spirit and Opportunity missions came along, I was perfectly set to use those skills developed on Earth to do field geology on rovers on Mars, blending my involvement in global views of the planet from orbital missions with my role in actual ground pounding geologic exploration on Earth. 

I consider myself a foot soldier in the exploration of Mars.

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I am neither a great leader of the field, with many students and great power in the science, nor someone who sat in the shadows. It has been a long-interwoven path.

But along the way I got to participate in the first wave of exploration of the inner solar system and the greatest journeys of exploration since the age of enlightenment. 

I have seen and experienced many things. And they have all been just as wonderful as I had hoped. 

Missions to Mars by Larry Crumpler is published on November 25 (HarperCollins, £25)

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