“What would you do if there’s life on Mars?”

My daughter’s class teacher, at St. Mary-Basha Catholic School, invited me to speak to the 5th grade classes on space science and the Mars rovers in particular. I am not a science teacher, but space science and aeronautics has become relevant material for my class –a happy coincidence of technology, computers and robotics.

Many months ago, I had listened to a long interview on NPR, where an engineer, Robert Steltzner spoke about his specialization, lowering the $400, 1980-pound Mars Curiosity rover onto the red planet. He didn’t think he was cut out for this kind of science, when he was much younger. (He recalled an elementary school principal telling him he wasn’t very bright!)

Steltzner’s solution, at the Jet propulsion Lab (JPL), was to design a ‘rover-on-a-rope’ –the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that a kid predicted to fail, often brings; the kind of ‘rocket science’ elementary school kids would dig.

To get back to the 5th graders, I was lucky to have with me the wheel of a rover – the replica wheel of the Opportunity rover. (We just learned that Opportunity is still working after 9 years!). They had a lot of questions, related to the batteries on this vehicle, how far it can travel etc. For many generations, space exploration was a rocket taking off in some distant place, and grainy pictures in the papers a few months later. Today, they can see much of this in real-time. The JPL site gives us the current time on Mars, as casually as if it was Indonesia. It sends back ‘scoop marks’ from its first jab at the Martian surface, as casually as one would send one’s grandparents a Facebook photo of a sandcastle on the beach.

The best question was what we would do if we did find life on Mars. I had never thought of that. Maybe I should ask the NASA folks. It depends on what we mean by a life form I guess. I applied the lens of cultural values to suggest that what we as humans would do when we find something or someone different. Would we assess it for its threat/benefit value? Would we have the ‘right’ to control or contain it?

This was a Catholic school. I asked them to consider how, as budding young scientists, their Christian values might influence their missions.

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