In a room of more than 150 geoscientists gathered to support scholarship recipients of the Houston Geological Society, the question was asked: “How many of you secretly want to be an astronaut?” Dozens of hands shot up. Yes, it is cool to study rocks on Earth, but with exploration in the DNA of scientists, the rocks on the moon and on Mars inevitably beckon.
In a Feb. 10 keynote address to recipients of $50,000 in scholarships from the HGS Scholarship Committee chaired by past AAPG President Charles Sternbach, Jessica Watkins – a newly graduated astronaut from NASA and planetary geologist – made the possibility of space exploration a little less out of reach for budding geoscientists.
“There is not one path to becoming an astronaut,” said Watkins, 31, who admitted to giving up on mechanical engineering as an undergrad at Stanford University. “I felt like I had to choose between this dream that I’ve had for a long time and doing something I was passionate about. It turns out that I didn’t have to choose.”
The Path to Mars
Watkins changed her major to geological and environmental sciences and later earned a doctorate in geology from the University of California, Los Angeles – her thesis exploring tectonic and aqueous processes in the formation of mass-wasting features on Mars and Earth. As a post-graduate fellow at the California Institute of Technology, she landed a role in the Mars Science Laboratory space mission, which sent the one-ton Curiosity rover to the Red Planet’s Gale Crater in 2012 and is preparing to launch the 2020 Mars rover.
“It was cool to wake up in the morning and see the new images that had come down from Mars that only a few other people had seen, and then make decisions about where you want to send the rover next,” said Watkins, who studied in the deserts of Utah as an analog during the project.
When she learned that NASA was seeking applications for its 2017 Astronaut Class, she threw her name in the hat. As applicants were narrowed down from more than 500 to 13, Watkins made the final cut. “It worked out!” she said, beaming in her newly-issued blue NASA jumpsuit.
“It is really crucial that you find what it is that you love, and you pursue that relentlessly. That’s the best way to set yourself up for success no matter what you end up doing,” she said.
Growing Demand for Astrogeologists
As space exploration broadens its focus to the south pole of the moon and to Mars, NASA is looking for a diverse group of scientists. Its recently graduated class of 13 included test pilots, a submariner, an aerospace engineer, medical doctors, a Navy SEAL, a microbiologist, an ocean engineer and Watkins – one of a growing number of geologists NASA has hired. (She joins AAPG members and former astronauts Jack Schmitt and Jim Reilly, who currently serves as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, to name a few).
Many of the 126 experiments currently taking place on the International Space Station are geoscience-related. And just last year, when an ISS-based astronaut first noticed the stirrings of a long-dormant volcano on the verge of eruption on the Russian island of Raikoke, it made another case for a geological role in disaster preparedness from space, Watkins said.
If NASA’s Artemis program – which has a goal of creating a habitable environment for humans on Shakleton Crater on the moon by 2024 – is successful, the United States will look toward landing on Mars, Watkins said.
With a Red Planet landing growing steadily within reach, geoscientists will be needed to analyze the planet’s geology. The 2020 Mars rover will be exploring Jezero Crater with the hopeful goal of discovering preserved evidence of ancient life, requiring knowledge of sedimentology and geomorphology, Watkins said.
“From a scientific perspective, craters are nature’s free excavation of materials and you are able to get down into the depths of geologic time, all in one place,” she said.
It seems that walking on Mars might be well within reach for Watkins, who – after two years of training in ISS-related work, robotics, space walking, flying T-38 fighter jets, expeditionary and team skills and learning Russian – dreams of exploring the planet’s Valles Marineris canyons, some of the largest in the solar system.
“Canyons give us a free pass to lots of layers and lots of history all in one place, and I think that would be invaluable in terms of deducing the whole geologic history of Mars,” she said.
Currently assisting NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which includes the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that is being prepared for its first crew launch from American soil, Watkins said she has learned that in addition to a STEM-related background, NASA places great importance on teamwork and attitude.
“Especially for the astronauts sitting on board – they are looking for somebody they would be willing to live in a tin can with for an extended period of time,” she said.
Opportunity and Advice
Speaking directly to the scholarship recipients, she encouraged partaking in as many internships as possible – including at NASA.
“Those internships were what solidified what it meant to be a planetary geologist – what the possibilities were and what that career would really look like,” she said.
Whether she finds herself on the moon or Mars, Watkins has received much advice from other geoscientist astronauts, particularly in regard to sampling constraints. Charlie Duke of the Apollo 11, 13 and 16 missions offered the following on rocks: “Once you get up there, whenever in doubt, just bring one of every color.”
On a more cosmic note, Watkins’ peers have shared how the awe-inspiring views of Earth from space can be transforming.
“It really gives you a sense of how small the Earth is and how fragile our ecosystem is,” Watkins said. “You also are not able to see any boundaries from space, and our boundaries create all kinds of division. I’ve heard it has a pretty profound impact on people.”
Watkins is well aware that she is living the dream at a pivotal time in space exploration, and she’s also aware that she is only here with the help of a very large team of engineers and scientists.
“We really are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said of astronauts. “I know it sounds trite, but we are legitimately bringing everyone with us. It’s really about being a representative of a much bigger thing and being lucky enough to have that honor.”