Roger Wiens: PhD, Mars Explorer and Planetary Chemist
- PhD in Radiometric Isotope Analysis, University of Minnesota
- Senior Research Scientist, Cal Tech University
- Research Team Leader, Los Alamos Labs, NM
- Professor in Geochemistry, University of New Mexico
- Team Leader for Development of the Mars Rover, "Curiosity's" laser spectrometer-'ChenCam'
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Toulouse, France
- Knighted by the government of France for his work in “forging strong ties between the French and American scientific communities” and for “inspiring many young, ambitious earthlings.”
- Author of Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration from Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity
FOLLOWING GOD IN MISSIONS…TO MARS
Early in my life I tried to follow God by heading down a path toward full-time Christian work overseas, only to be firmly steered back into science. God took unanswered letters, abrupt job endings, and other means to keep pushing me back onto this path. The Psalmist wrote often about God’s direction in our lives. In particular, Psalm 139 says,
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
My career as a scientist has at times seemed on the brink of utter failure, only to be turned around into spectacular success. The most vivid examples are the crash of NASA’s Genesismission upon its return to Earth in 2004. I had been working on this mission for fourteen years, first at Caltech and then at Los Alamos. The idea behind the mission was to send a spacecraft outside the Earth’s magnetosphere to collect solar wind—particles from the Sun—and bring them back to Earth to analyze the Sun’s composition in a novel and illuminating way. The crash landing of this first ever robotic capsule to return from deep space appeared to dash all hope of getting our scientific results. In spite of that, we were able to collect enough pieces to analyze the solar samples, eventually making fundamental discoveries about the early period in our solar system. One of our damaged samples made the cover of Sciencemagazine.
Another example of apparent failure was NASA’s cancellation in 2007 of the Mars rover instrument that I was leading and which our team had nearly completed. Our intense effort to develop a novel laser instrument that was to be mounted on the top of the bold one-ton Curiosityrover was brought to a standstill. After many weeks of uncertainty (and much soul searching on my part) the cancellation was reversed and we were able to deliver the completed instrument. Curiosity’ssuccessful landing in 2012 led to many new discoveries by our ChemCam instrument team as we learned more about the lakes and rivers that once existed on our sister planet.
These major failures in the public eye and unexpected reversals left me convinced that I was not ultimately responsible for the success (or failure) of my career, and that God would do what He willed with my life if I only followed the path He had for me. These ups and downs caused me to identify with many of the characters in the scriptures, and leaving me to understand that God’s direction is not relegated only to an ancient book, but is true today as much as it was then. Abraham was asked by God to give up his son—the child through whom he was to become the father of a great nation—and he obeyed, and yet God spared that sacrifice in the end. As I received NASA’s notice of cancellation of our Mars rover instrument, I had to give up an intense dream, held from the time I was a child, to explore the red planet. And yet, after yielding that dream to God’s purposes, I received it back again, and have relished the opportunity to explore Mars ever since. I will come back to this cancellation period after first talking about God’s leading earlier in my life.
I was always interested in science and nature. As a child, that interest was spurred on strongly by my brother, who was two years older. Under his lead, the two of us pooled our paper-route earnings to purchase parts for a telescope which we assembled just in time for a close-approach of Mars. After Mars receded from the Earth we turned our attention to other celestial objects—comets, galaxies, and nebulae. We started tracking variable stars, recording their brightness over the months and mailing our reports to professional astronomers who had no idea that we were just kids. We also kept busy building model rockets, which in later years were equipped with transmitters and cameras that supplied our darkroom with film for processing. We grew up during the days of the Apollo Moon missions, which inspired us to learn all we could about the Moon and about rocketry.
Our home was in a Mennonite community in a small southern Minnesota town. In this rural setting and before the internet, we were exposed to relatively little of the outside world besides TV and family trips. In the summer we helped on the family farm, where my grandparents lived with my bachelor uncle who carried on the farming. My father was the town doctor, which may explain a little of my interest in science. Besides medicine and farming we were aware of the vocations of other townspeople—retail, auto and farm equipment repair, insurance, and real estate—but that was about all.
From our church we were very aware of Christian workers—our pastor and the many overseas workers that our church supported. We had mission festivals at least twice a year. From these day-long Sunday gatherings we learned much about far-away places like Africa, India, Japan, and the Philippines. There were so many needy people in these places, and the work seemed very interesting and fulfilling, based on the reports that we heard. I didn’t think I was cut out to be a pastor, but in the back of my mind, as a child I entertained the thought of working overseas someday.
In high school I became more preoccupied with courses in which I really excelled—math, chemistry, physics, and music. I took as many of these classes as our small high school offered. When I was younger it baffled me how other students would get stuck on arithmetic problems or got the answers wrong. Math seemed so simple. As I matured I started to realize that perhaps God had gifted me in the area of math. I also started to understand the utility of algebra and trigonometry in the sciences. The specific impulse of our rocket engines as well as the rocket’s drag coefficient and weight determined the height of their trajectory, which we measured by triangulation. The mass of planets could be determined by the orbital distances and periods of their moons. The world of science was slowly being revealed to my expanding mind.
The high-school algebra teacher suggested to me that a person with a clear talent in math should pursue the STEM subjects, as the world needed people who could think technically. So as I approached college, I considered going into engineering, even though I didn’t know a single engineer.
In our small town we did not know much about higher education. My father had gone to a Mennonite college, but it didn’t quite hold the same interest for my brother or me. Several of my dad’s cousins had gone to Wheaton College near Chicago. It was strong in the sciences, and so my brother went there; two years later I followed him.
While at Wheaton I regained an interest in overseas ministry. I had joined a singing group and went to Europe with them after my freshman year. My exposure to other cultures fascinated me as we stayed in peoples’ homes throughout France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Eventually our group gave more than eighty concerts in these countries. When we began planning another European tour after my junior year, my father suggested that if I was interested in overseas ministry as a career, I should spend some time with his cousin, Arthur Wiens.
Art had served in Italy during World War II, and afterwards he had a burden to go back to the people he had gotten to know there. After studying at Wheaton he returned and ended up spending his life working with the protestant churches in northern Italy. His work is chronicled in the book, Italy, Land of Searching Hearts. I was very interested in meeting and working with this person of whom I had heard so much in our church and at home, so I rushed off a letter asking his permission to visit and work with his team for several weeks. This was before the internet, so I had to wait for a reply by overseas mail. After waiting six weeks I sent off another letter. I never heard a response. As described in his biography, the Wiens family in Italy had encountered some severe hardships that year, and were not in a place to have visitors.
The closed door to working in Christian overseas ministry that summer left me wondering if God was pointing me in a different direction. Maybe I could combine my technical and scientific interests with overseas ministry by getting an advanced degree and teaching in a university somewhere around the world. I applied to graduate schools, and eventually signed on with the University of Minnesota.
One of my Wheaton college professors had gotten his PhD at the University of Minnesota studying Moon rocks and meteorites. This research lab was in the Physics department, and so as part of agreeing to join the UMN graduate program, I accepted a job in the lunar and meteorite research lab. After passing the qualifying exams the first year, I committed to doing my PhD research in this lab. With my goal of teaching overseas afterwards, I was not sure if the actual topic of research made much difference, and besides, this line of work was absolutely fascinating. The lab was instrumental that year in proving that several meteorites found on Earth contained trapped gases with a composition that was identical to the Mars atmosphere. The news that pieces of Mars could survive being ejected from the red planet and eventually fall to Earth was amazing. I ended up doing my thesis work on these rocks from our neighboring planet. Little did I know that my plans to abandon research to teach overseas would be changed into leading my own teams to study the red planet. God was preparing me for this exciting career in spite of my plans to throw it away to do “Christian work”.
I still didn’t know how I would land a job overseas. I applied for several overseas fellowships but was turned down for each one. My closest opportunity was to take a research job at the farthest corner of the continental United States, in San Diego. While there, my research broadened to study the geochemistry of the Earth’s mid-ocean ridges and the composition of gases expelled from the Earth’s crust and mantle. I spent my spare time trying to meet with agencies that might place me overseas, but again to no avail.
At that point it seems that God led me back to planetary science in a more abrupt way. My post-doc position was to last another year or so, but my supervisor suddenly announced to me that he had only three weeks of funding left for me. I had to take any job I could find to support my family. I previously had an opportunity to work on a space mission concept at Caltech but I had turned down the National Research Council fellowship at the time. Now, the job was open again, and a meeting had been scheduled for me at Caltech for the very week that I heard that my other job was ending. I sensed that this was God’s leading and I never looked back.
My visit to Caltech makes up the opening lines of the book, Red Rover, which chronicles my early career in planetary science. The book tells of three different missions I was involved in: Genesis, mentioned already, with its spectacular crash and our equally surprising science discoveries in spite of the crash; The SCIMmission to return a sample of Mars, which eventually did not go forward, and which I will mention below; and the Curiosityrover mission.
Many instances stand out in my mind where I see God’s gracious leading in my life. One was an event that never made it into the Red Roverbook. In this instance I think God was just reminding me of what He can do.
We had been selected for the feasibility study of an exciting new mission to return a sample of Mars to Earth. NASA had tried for years to develop infrastructure to enable the return of Mars samples to Earth, but designing a rocket that could land on Mars and then go back into orbit was the bottleneck. So our team had a different idea: we would fly a bullet-shaped aeroshell into the atmosphere during one of Mars’ yearly dust storms. It would collect dust particles and sample the atmosphere without landing, zipping within a few miles the surface at Mach 29, and would then come back to Earth. We called the mission Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars, which had a most appropriate acronym: SCIM. NASA gave us six months and a million dollars to intensively study this concept and then we would compete with two other Phase-A concepts for the final selection. The competition would be based on a 1000-page feasibility study report and on a full day of presentations, to be given to a review board at a Lockheed facility in Denver.
The feasibility study period ended and our reports—developed with the utmost care—were submitted. Our one day of oral presentations was scheduled just after the 4thof July. Following many late nights critiquing various team members' talks I took a much-needed vacation with my family in Minnesota. The plan was to leave my wife and boys with the grandparents while I went to the review. But in the course of relaxing over vacation I got the return date wrong! In my mind the flight was a day later than my ticket. I never bothered to check. I was blissfully enjoying a baseball game with my family while, unknown to me, the plane took off without me.
The next morning I checked my ticket for the departure time and found to my horror that I had missed the flight by a day. I quickly called the airline. Every plane was completely booked all the way through the 4thand beyond.
The airline clerk on the phone told me that I could try paying a fee to join the standby list. Of course, if I didn’t make the flight, I wouldn’t get the money back. My young boys realized the seriousness of the situation and immediately got on their knees and started praying that I would somehow get to my destination. The only thing to do was to try standby.
I got to the airport and asked to be listed as a standby passenger. The man behind the counter told me there were no fewer than ten people ahead of me on the list, but he would add my name if I really wanted. What a hopeless situation! This was all my fault. I was feeling so stupid for missing my flight. With a prayer of my own, I gave the man my name, went through security, and walked to the gate, where I confirmed my status as a standby passenger.
The incoming plane taxied to the gate and the arriving passengers exited. The boarding area was crowded with waiting travelers. The minutes went by slowly. The gate area began to empty as the passengers lined up to board. About half-way through the process the gate agent came on the PA system and announced that the flight was completely full and that they would not have room for any standby passengers. I wouldn’t make it.
I was about to leave the gate area, defeated. But as last passengers entered the jetway I decided to inquire with the gate agent just to make sure. The agent replied rather sharply, “You heard my announcement, didn’t you?” Still, she asked for my name and checked her monitor. As she stared into the screen a strange look flashed across her face. Her eyes got bigger; she glanced up at me and exclaimed in a surprised voice, “Well, you are a regular passenger on this flight!” She pulled a boarding pass from the printer and handed it to me. “Have a nice flight.” Thanking her numbly, I stepped aside to call my wife to tell her the news. It was so strange I could hardly talk!
I looked at the boarding pass. Yes, it had my name on it, but something else caught my eye. My seat was 1A, at the very front of the plane. I never flew first class. God didn’t just answer our prayers; He did it first class!
As I settled into my seat, I noticed some kind of problem in the economy section. A person was standing in the aisle when everyone should have been buckled in. It turned out there was some kind of error; a seat had been double booked. Someone else had to get off in my place. Does that theme sound familiar? As we flew to our destination I chatted with the passenger next to me, who was flying to be with family for a medical emergency. I told her of my surprising circumstance getting a seat on the plane when I really needed it, and I prayed with her for her family’s emergency before we parted.
There would of course be other difficult times ahead. One of the most challenging was when our ChemCam Mars instrument funding was cancelled by NASA. As I describe in Red Rover, we were nearly finished with the instrument, but the multi-billion-dollar rover was over budget, and we were told that something had to be sacrificed. I got the call saying it would be my instrument. The next eight weeks were a blur. I led the team through e-mail and letter-writing campaigns, meetings with various NASA committees and officials, and financial and institution advisors. Nothing seemed to be working.
With the remaining dollars that we had left in the project we tried to do what we could to complete work for delivery to NASA. One of the NASA centers had sent us an electrical cable that was to be used to connect two parts of our instrument together. After checking it out we connected the cable and turned on the power. Something went dreadfully wrong and we detected the smell of burned electrical components. The faulty cable had damaged both parts of our instrument. Not only was our funding cancelled, but now our instrument was really dead.
Through this time I leaned heavily on my faith that God knew what He was doing and He would see us through to the end, some way or another. I took each day as it came, never quite knowing what would come next. I was bracing myself to face the failure of having lost a major project for our team and for my institution. Along with that, for me it was ever so painful to release the dream of exploring Mars. I had to give it back into the hands of God. I had felt that He had promised me success in this project, but how could that happen now?
In scripture we read how Job not only lost everything, but friends came to supposedly comfort him. They tried to convince him that the loss was due to his failings—and that he needed to repent of causing the calamity. I could relate. At work, people who were closest to the project understood that we had become a political football in an ugly game. But those less close to our work thought we must have really bungled the situation to be in such a deep hole. The finger of blame was pointing at me.
As a worship leader in my church, it was incredibly hard for me during that time. I remember being at the keyboard, playing the music with tears streaming down my face as we sang:
Blessed be Your name when I’m found in a desert place,
Though I walk through a wilderness, blessed be Your name…
You give and take away, You give and take away,
My heart will choose to say, “Blessed be Your name.”
And then, through a series of events our instrument was restored, though the road to recovery was not easy at first.
As I mentioned near the beginning, I have a strong sense that I cannot take ultimate responsibility for the successes of the projects I have led. How can I, when I have seen so clearly through these events that God is in control of the paths of our lives? He who sees even a sparrow fall to the ground, He guides the events of our lives. Ultimately, we can feel safe and secure in Him.
Italy, Land of Searching Hearts: The story of Arthur and Erma Wiens and the need for the gospel in Italy, Evelyn Stenbock-Ditty, Christian Focus, 2001, 208 pages.
Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration from Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity, Roger C. Wiens, Basic Books, 2013, 256 pages.