By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
NASA has undertaken nearly two dozen spacecraft missions to Mars since the 1960s, starting with Mariner. Since then, Raymond E. Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis, has been part of almost every mission to Mars since he began his scientific career in the mid-1970s including orbiters, landers and rovers.
“I went to graduate school at Brown University in Rhode Island and my thesis advisor was involved in what’s called the Viking mission. The U.S. put two Landers on the surface of Mars in 1976. So, I was fortunate enough to participate in that, and that was really groundbreaking,” said Arvidson. “And then my interest in Mars and Venus and the Earth just carried on to Washington University when I came in 1974.”
This was the beginning of Mars exploration for Raymond Arvidson, a career spanning 50 years.
“I participated in practically every Mars mission that was successful, all the way through the two big rovers on the surface, Perseverance and Curiosity,” he said.
Arvidson has been part of many exciting discoveries about the red planet through orbiting missions and robotic missions on the Martian surface, thrilling from the moment of landing.
“And a sigh of relief when the first signal comes back saying, ‘Hey, I’m the rover (or I’m the lander) and I landed successfully. Let’s get on with business.’”
During the last 50 years, Arvidson has been a NASA science team member, Deputy Principal Investigator for Mars Exploration Rovers, and an explorer.
“Totally exciting! You come in a day after a drive and you’re seeing for curiosity, a brand new terrain with exciting possibilities.”
Also spending the last 48 years in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Arvidson helped light the path for generations of Washington University students and he made a real difference for the future of Mars exploration.
“Mars has given up a lot of secrets. It still has a lot. But clearly long ago, billions of years ago, this planet was warm and wet and Earth-like. So, what we’re after is whether or not it was habitable and whether or not the life started there. And everything’s looking good, but we don’t know about the life thing yet,” Arvidson said. “It’s possible that if there were microbes on Mars, meteorites from Mars may have come back here billions of years ago. We could have some Martian heritage, who knows, there’s a lot to learn.”
The world’s fascination with Mars has put Arvidson’s work in the spotlight. And now it’s Arvidson’s turn to be in the spotlight with a public lecture celebrating his retirement in June 2022 and his 50-year career exploring Mars. The lecture is titled, “My 50 Years Exploring Mars: From the Viking Landers to the Perseverance Rover.”
“It’s important to me because it’s really a capstone to my career,” he said. “Talking about why we’re doing the exploration, how it’s done and some of the funny stories.”
Arvidson still maintains office space at Washington University, as his work on Mars is not over.
“I still provide some strategic advice to NASA and to Perseverance and Curiosity managers.”
Having been a science team member for Curiosity with a leading role in path planning for the rover’s daily drives, Arvidson is still along for the ride!
“Now, I’m a backseat driver. The driver doesn’t really like that advice all the time, but you’re still going to give it.”
Afterall, Arvidson’s time ‘on Mars’ is unmatched from long missions that involved adjusting his clock to a Mars day, which is 39 minutes longer than a day on Earth.
“I think I’m the human being with the most time living on Mars time in the whole world,” he said.
For Arvidson and Mars, there seems to be endless possibilities, hopefully leading to something big.
“Humans on Mars is maybe 20 or 30 years from now,” he explained. “It’s a place that you can get to, and it has scientific bonanzas yet to be discovered.”