Want to throw a good-natured curveball at a world-class scientist — one whose blood, sweat and toil have been to Mars not once but twice?
Ask him about his honorary knighthood.
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s not something I refer to very often,” says Roger Wiens, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who would much rather talk about teamwork and science than any individual honor.
OK, we’ll come back to that in a bit.
For the moment, let’s concentrate on this: Wiens, 61, has been part of two hugely successful NASA projects that have flown to Mars, first with the Curiosity mission that landed on the planet in 2012 and most recently with the ballyhooed Perseverance rover that got there last month.
Perseverance — an interstellar sports car; new, hot and outfitted with all the bells and whistles you can fit onto a rover that’s going to another planet — is getting all kinds of well-deserved attention. But last week, research co-authored by Wiens in the journal Geology showed Mars had a much more interesting climate — significant fluctuations between drier and wetter eras — before going dry a few billion years ago.
In the scientific world, that’s big news, and an instrument on the Curiosity mission, called ChemCam, helped make that breakthrough. The devise uses a laser instrument that heats then vaporizes rock fragments, producing a plasma that allows scientists to analyze the chemical and mineral composition in the rock — and offer a look at the planet’s geologic history.
Which would be cool enough. But the technology and commitment that went into ChemCam’s successes have passed the scientific baton to Perseverance, which features a next-gen instrument called SuperCam. Wiens is the principal investigator on both pieces of equipment, working closely with a team of scientists in both the U.S. and France.
In essence, he’s the head coach.
And like any good coach, Wiens says teamwork makes all the difference. Yes, in all the space movies, there are a couple brave protagonists — usually astronauts, Matt Damon types — who get the attention while a bunch of out-of-focus lab coats in the background scurry about, trying to make the whole thing work.
But it’s all those people, Wiens says, who hold the science together. He points to a time on Curiosity when ChemCam stopped working. Kaput. Since it’s Mars and there’s no chance of dispatching a fix-it team to the camera, it was left to a squad of software engineers on Earth to figure out the problem and create a solution.
“The software engineers got the software that worked around the problem that we had,” Wiens recalls. “The problem itself was that we have to focus this telescope every time we make a measurement, and our focus mechanism to determine the focus had gone out. We made a software fix, where we take pictures and find the best focus that way. That software went up and we got the instrument going exactly a half-year after it had failed.
“We have these clever people. One of the things is that the success makes me very thankful and grateful to be able work on a big team with very smart people,” Wiens adds. “So, it’s not an individual success in any way, it’s a team effort. And it’s thanks to the collaboration and cooperation and the getting along of people that makes this work.”
Wiens, who grew up in a small town in Minnesota where the nearest big city was in South Dakota — now that’s the definition of small — has long had a passion for space. But then, he grew up in an era when the challenge of getting to the moon galvanized a generation. If you’re in that demographic, you remember huddling around a black-and-white TV set, waiting for the next pronouncement from Cronkite; leaning in as the scratchy voice of Armstrong told us about “One small step for man …”
“It’s really exciting,” Wiens says of his work — and really, the future of space.
Of course, the giant leaps are different now, and sometimes, in a 600-channel world, unobserved. Maybe even unappreciated on the scale they deserve. Perseverance has turned heads, though it’s not like the Apollo missions.
Still, for Wiens, the journey’s the thing.
And sure, sometimes, the journey takes you to France, where you’re awarded an honorary knighthood for your willingness and ability to work with the French scientists who have been key on both ChemCam and SuperCam.
“It was a very special honor,” Wiens allows. “It did come from the fact that this is a real important collaboration that the French people feel very proud of the fact that we can do this together as two countries that are working closely together. That was the meaning of that award. That was pretty cool.”