Interview by Ray Fontaine
Clever Tech Digest sat down with Melissa Guzman, a NASA astrobiologist helping to shape the future of space colonization, and possibly solve world hunger! Both a poet and researcher, Melissa elaborates on the delicate balance between science, faith, and ethics in space exploration.
The race to space has changed since the Cold War, now focusing less on international competition and more on outrunning the inevitable consequences of over population on planet Earth. How will we grow food and where will we live when the human race is pushed to emigrate to other planets in our solar system?
For readers unfamiliar with your work, please describe your passion for space, the potatoes in space project, NASA's honeycomb project, and your exciting work focused on Saturn's moon, Enceladus.
My passion for space began at a young age, encouraged every evening by the simplicity and beauty of the night sky. This passion remained unarticulated until I started my undergraduate education. I studied physics, with little formal education in astronomy and planetary science initially.
Several internships in the world of planetary science and a Masters degree in Space Studies led me to my current job working as a research associate for NASA. My work currently focuses on the field of astrobiology, an interdisciplinary pursuit of life beyond the Earth. Astrobiology can be outward-focused in pursuance of life that developed independently from life on Earth; it can also be inward-focused in pursuance of ways that Earth’s humans can venture and live beyond the Earth’s biome.
Two of my main projects illustrate each of these aspects of astrobiology. Our ‘Potatoes on Mars’ project (yes, like in The Martian movie) has developed a new strain of potato in order to grow potatoes in harsh Martian-like environments on Earth. These potatoes have already been deployed to help Earthlings struggling with hunger, and might someday provide sustenance for colonizers of Mars.
I also work on initiatives to send a spacecraft to Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, in order to look for microbial life in the active geysers at its south pole. Enceladus has a global sub-surface ocean and hosts many of the necessary ingredients for life. Searching for life on Enceladus is of prime interest to astrobiologists—it is amazing to think there could be life so close to our home here on Earth.
Not only did you study physics in college, but you actively competed with your school's Slam Poetry team. How do you think your interaction with the arts shaped your pursuits and perspectives as a scientist? Do you think astrophysics and space exploration need a balance of emotional intelligence/sensitivity to remain ethical?
Poetry, and especially slam poetry, ensured I knew how to feel comfortable, strong, and valid in my own skin. That has been important emotionally in the world of American space science, which is not diverse in terms of gender, race, and cultural background.
What constitutes a Scientist is often misportrayed in popular culture. Science depends on evidence and the scientific method, but we also rely on our own breed of faith. In science, we often quantify the ‘invisible’ by the effects that the invisible has on other objects. This is especially true in the worlds of planetary science and astrobiology, where we are so far away from the objects we want to observe. Poets and scientists share traits: curiosity in how the world works and is constructed, deep delight at the elegance and beauty of fundamental principles, as well as the seductive mystery of an enigma, and the ability to gather and sort data.
I think emotional intelligence is important in any field. Emotional intelligence is important in astrobiology, for example, because we have to think conscientiously about how we might affect (and be affected by) life outside Earth with our actions and developments.
Contrary to popular belief, science often leans on faith in assumptions made about the unknown in order to make progress and discoveries. Sometimes these assumptions turn out to be wrong. During your career, what have been the most memorable cases of critical assumptions proved false and how did those moments open up your imagination about life outside of planet Earth?
One of the most incredible narratives I’ve ever heard is the story of the search for organics on Mars. The first successful landers on Mars were the twin Viking spacecraft in 1976. Their primary goal was to determine if life could survive on Mars. The Viking landers looked for organic matter in the Martian soil. All life as we know it contains organic material, so this was the starting point for a detection of Martian life.
Shockingly, a main instrument onboard the Viking crafts, the GCMS or Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer, detected no organic matter in the Martian soil! This was a disappointment and a surprise to scientists at the time, who knew that organic material was deposited on Mars by comets and meteorites all the time. The non-detection of organics on Mars became a scientific mystery and informed the NASA Mars program for decades.
In 2008, the Phoenix lander explored the icy north pole of Mars and found something unexpected: there is a type of salt in the Martian soil which is rare on Earth. No one had expected this salt to be in the soil, and no one had considered its effect on the chemical processes within the Viking instruments. After further conclusions of the presence of this salt on Mars and further experiments back here on Earth, scientists have proposed that this salt might have reacted with any organics inside the Viking instruments, causing the organics to be difficult to detect with the GCMS. In other words, the type of instrument used on the Viking craft might have caused the ‘destruction’ or at least masking of the object we pursued! For 40 years, we based our conclusions on this well-founded but incorrect assumption.
Method informs results. Scientists can be quick to say “no” to anything outside the box, but in the science community we need to work to change this mentality, to embrace our imaginations as individuals and as a community.
Please describe your thoughts on the current relationship between humans and consumer technology, and the interactions between humans facilitated by technology, in the form of a poem.
Satellites join hands
in silent vacuum. WhatsApp
buzz. My mother smiles.
What question do you wish I had asked?
An interesting topic in the space world is about whether international competition or collaboration encourages progress. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia pushed each other’s technological boundaries as they competed in the space arena. Today the U.S. places strict boundaries on collaborating with the Chinese space development. An interesting model is the European space agency and industry, which is inherently international. It is a question worth asking ourselves in the U.S., since our public space program seems stagnated in certain ways, since the Apollo era. As our private sector grows, we should consider the benefits of international competition and/or collaboration in both our public and private spheres.
What is your dream result of your current work growing potatoes in Martian soil?
My dream result would be to see the new potato strain have real effects on fighting hunger on Earth. The strain has already been deployed to Bangladesh, where salty soil hampers agricultural production. In addition, it is my dream to see the successful colonization of Mars and to visit Mars myself. I would love to see our project contribute to this vision.
What do you fear most about human exploration and colonization of space?
Fear is not the emotion I associate with human exploration and colonization of space, so it’s a good question to contemplate…since the majesty and expansiveness of space is equal to its dangers. It is important to go boldly but smartly into space.
Many people who hear what I do ask me: “Don’t you think we should take care of our own planet before venturing onto other planets?” The answer is “Yes, I do.” Colonization of other planets can be a viable solution to issues such as overpopulation, but I hope somewhere along the way we can develop healthier political and ecological systems to implement on other planets.
Maybe colonization will offer us the chance to start anew and, as mentioned above, be free from pre-defined social norms and free to entertain our expansive imaginations in terms of how we set up our new societies.