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Mars Rover Curiosity Keeps Busy On Red Planet


It has been just over a week now since Curiosity, the NASA Mars rover, made its successful landing on the Red Planet. Curiosity is by far the most technologically advanced rover to reach the surface of Mars so far, and it's already begun sending back some pretty compelling, high-resolution photographs of the planet's surface. To talk about space and the importance of this mission, we're joined, as we often are, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

Dr. Tyson, welcome back to the program.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Happy to be back with you. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, as someone whose career has focused largely on space discoveries, what is striking you so far about this Mars mission?


TYSON: Well, it's got to be the landing of the thing. I mean, consider that you travel nine months to get to the place, and then you encounter the planet, and you've got to slow down somehow. Fortunately, Mars has some atmosphere, so that allows you to use a parachute. But then you need all the rest of these sort of Rube Goldberg-ian devices to land this thing. And so up till now, I think the greatest achievement there is not scientific but engineering. And right now the rover is sort of getting ready to sort of start its roving.


TYSON: It won't move very fast, by the way, when it finally kicks in.

GREENE: It's kind of a pokey rover once it starts exploring the planet.

TYSON: Very pokey. It's - I think it tops out at one and a half inches per second. So...


GREENE: Yeah, that's not fast.


TYSON: Be funny if you lined up all the rovers that ever were in Mars and had a race. You go out, have a cup of coffee, come back, see how far they've gotten.

GREENE: Yeah, or go to college and come back and see how far they've gotten.


GREENE: This mission is getting a lot of attention and it seems like it's giving NASA some positive news, you know, after all the headlines about shutdown of the shuttle program.

TYSON: Yeah, of course. And rightfully so, because, you know, the next best thing to just wandering around Mars aimlessly is to send in an entire laboratory there. And it's fully tricked out. It's very ambitious. And now it's not going to actually look for life as we know it, but it's certainly equipped to look for precursors of life - so organic molecules that would tell us something about the conditions on the surface.

GREENE: Well, it's interesting you bring up the search for life. President Obama, you know, kind of jokingly told the people running this mission that if there is contact with Martians, please let him know. Could they find something that would be significant?

TYSON: So there's no specific instrument designed to detect life, but if something crawled out from under a rock and climbed on the back of the thing, you wouldn't need the lab experiment to determine that's like yup, that's life.

GREENE: Could that happen? I mean could something crawl out of somewhere or is that just crazy?

TYSON: Well, there's a recognizant satellite and that has high enough resolution so that in all the areas that it has mapped, if there was something large enough to crawl on the back of this thing, actively moving around on the surface, we would've known about it well in advance of landing.

GREENE: Let me ask you one more question about this Mars mission. It sounds like you're impressed, as a lot of people are. But you've also written about how you feel like only humans can truly explore space and not robots. Do you feel like because of that there's still more that should be done with exploring Mars beyond this?

TYSON: Oh, no, no, no, no. You always need robots, of course. It's vastly cheaper to send robots than to send humans.

But that being said, my appeal to get astronauts back in space is simply because of the force of nature that they represent on the ambitions of students in the pipeline.

GREENE: And how close are we to getting humans to Mars?

TYSON: Well, in the Obama plan, it's not until the 2030s, when he's long been on a beach in Hawaii by then - under the leadership of a president to be named later on a budget not yet established. So I'm disappointed that the plans that our nation had for NASA's future in space are also timed diluted in such a way that it makes me question whether it'll ever happen at all.

We all got excited about this rover, but I mean we're still behind, based on where everyone thought we should've been by this, the second decade of the 21st century. So, yes, I'm happy for the rover, but I'm saddened that there's not even more of it going on.

GREENE: Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for joining us, as always.

TYSON: Happy to be with you.

GREENE: Dr. Neal DeGrasse Tyson is the director of the Haydon Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.