Manly Mars exploration


Since when did Mars exploration become such a manly thing?

If one didn’t know better, one might think, in reading New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger’s recent epic take on the current era of Mars exploration, that in 2013, women are scarce in the Mars community.

Bilger’s 16-page spread in the April 22 issue of the magazine, “The Martian chroniclers: a new era in planetary exploration,”, is one part science story and two parts paean to two men on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team – entry, descent, and landing engineer Adam Steltzner and chief scientist John Grotzinger.

Don’t get be wrong: these two people deserve all the praise they can muster for their accomplishments on this mission. They’re Good People and outstanding in their fields. But this manly thing is a bit much for me….

As a 40-year subscriber to The New Yorker, I’ve been reading Bilger’s work there since he joined the staff in 2001. According to the magazine, “his articles have focussed on food, science, and American subcultures…”

I think of Bilger as a writer who’s most fond of manly topics. Witness the title of his latest book: Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and other Southern Comforts.” Among his many articles for The New Yorker are pieces on “extreme beer,” baldness cures and hair transplant surgery, hunting exotic game, killing squirrels and eating their brains hunting squirrels and eating their brains, and tunneling machines.

Yes, yes, I know he’s written about non-manly things, such as global warming, invasive species, “the cheese nun”…

But still….

In his Mars opus, Bilger tells us about Steltzner’s “rebel without a cause” youth. We learn, for example, that “between the ages of seven and seventeen, Steltzner broke thirty-two bones and got a hundred and seventy-two stitches” and that later he had a brief career as “a small-town playboy.” (Bilger tells us that he knew Steltzner before his days on MSL.) Of Grotzinger, Bilger tells us that he “has worked in Siberia, Namibia, Oman, and Arctic Canada…rafted rivers in Yakutsk, dodged grizzly bears and black flies around Great Slave Lake….” And on and on.

I guess this is what you call “human interest.” But, jeez, I guess you’ll have to read the piece yourself to decide whether Bilger is hitting the reader over the head a bit too enthusiastically with the manliness of this engineer and this scientist (Again, I want to emphasize that I’m questioning the writer, not criticizing his subjects.)

You may ask yourself, who am I to poke at Bilger, anyway?  He’s a leading science writer, widely published…a New Yorker staff writer (every writer’s dream), for pete’s sake…. (You can listen to Bilger talk about his writing career here.)

I’m a 30-year member of the space community, a lifelong feminist, a former president of Women in Aerospace who remains committed to advancing the status and the profile of women in the field (many of whom still don’t toot their own horns enough), and someone who knows many of the men and women who work together on Mars exploration.

JPL Curiosity rover driver Vandi Tompkins, who warrants four paragraphs in Bilger’s voluminous piece, is not alone on the MSL team. Joy Crisp is MSL’s deputy project scientist. Jennifer Trosper – who became well known to NASA’s public audiences as he Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s “boss” (see below) – is MSL’s mission management office manager (not a trivial position, with a team of hundreds to herd). Jessica Samuels is MSL’s engineering operations team chief. Nicole Spanovich is MSL’s science operations team chief…and there are more women who are key team members.

Yes, all nine principal investigators for MSL science instruments are men. However, on MSL’s science team we also have Mary Voytek, deputy project scientist; and Pan Conrad, deputy principal investigator for the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, among others (of 31 scientists on the SAM team, 11 are women). By the way, if you like rugged, ask Voytek about her multiple field expeditions to Antarctica, and ask Conrad about how many summers she’s spent working in the high-Arctic Svalbard archipelago….

As to historical precedents at NASA, women have always played key roles in Mars exploration. The late Lynn Margulis was the first woman to receive funding from NASA’s exobiology program, in 1971, for research relating to the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. NASA’s first landed mission to Mars, Viking, involved women: Bonnie Dalton, Marjorie Lewalt, and Bonnie Berdahl were on the team that designed Viking’s biology instrument package.* JPL engineer Donna Shirley was the designer of the Mars Pathfinder Rover, and manager of JPL’s Mars exploration program at the time. JPL’s Diana Blaney and NASA Ames Research Center’s Carol Stoker were co-investigators on the science team for NASA’s Phoenix lander mission to Mars. For NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, Cathy Weitz was program scientist, Joy Crisp was project scientist, and (see above) Jennifer Trosper was mission manager for operations for the MER rover Spirit.

What Mars exploration – space exploration – is all about today, as it always has been, is teamwork. The myth of the Lone Ranger in Space is just that – a myth. Nobody can make in space alone. Every member of the team is important.

Okay. I’m stepping off my soapbox, and I hope I’ve made my point.


*Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, Rutgers University Press, 2004, p. 81.


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