I was involved in a mission called Mars Polar Lander that was supposed to land in 1999 in the south polar region of Mars. I built an instrument for that very similar to the TEGA instrument that we’re building for Phoenix—in fact it had the same name. At the time that mission was proposed, nobody knew about this ice beneath the surface, but by the time we got around to proposing for the Phoenix mission, [Mars Odyssey] had discovered this ice not much before that. It really got an awful lot of interest both from the public and from the scientific community.
I think that helped NASA make that selection, because we were proposing to fly the exact same kind of lander that crashed in 1999. NASA was clearly reluctant to fly that same lander again. But enough people studied the 1999 event that they were pretty sure they’d figured out what went wrong, and they solved that problem, and we made the case that probably no spacecraft has been looked at in more detail than this one we’re proposing because of all of the studies on why it crashed and so on and so forth. In the end NASA decided to go with the Phoenix mission. A lot of people have suggested that the discovery of the ice probably really helped NASA make that decision.
In 2002, two things happened. One, we were thrashing around trying to figure out if we could use the ’01 spacecraft which had been sitting in a box at Lockheed-Martin, and if so, what could we use it for. What instruments should we include, and what would its scientific goals be? We were looking for a low-cost solution to the Scout dilemma of providing new, exciting science within a cost cap.
The Phoenix mission is shaped like a tabletop with an arm, with some instruments and a weather station—that’s it. You can’t put wheels on it, and you can’t do other daring things, because you want to keep the cost low.
At just the time we were thinking about how use the ’01 spacecraft, Boynton announced that there was ice under the soil of the polar regions. Big coincidence. To me, that was it. NASA’s theme is follow the water, and no spacecraft had ever gotten anywhere close to water. Where they had landed, there hadn’t been water for three billion years.
I thought, here’s a chance: You could just land anywhere in the polar region, and ice is under you. You don’t need wheels. Our mission is vertical. Phoenix is looking at what’s happening today. Ice is not ancient. We want to look at modern structures and modern processes. Is there any chance the ice did melt, and if so, was there biology? All of a sudden, it clicked. I’ve been awfully lucky. Things have clicked several times for me. You’re lucky enough to have that happen once or twice in your life.
We really worked hard to win that proposal. Of course we did win, because here we are in the midst of the mission. When we wrote the proposal, one thing I insisted on against tremendous resistance was doing the operations here. That’s why we got this building [the Phoenix Science Operations Center]. I convinced the University to agree to provide us space. My feeling was the science expertise is at the universities. The students are here. We’ve got access to all kinds of resources that scientists need.
I think winning the Phoenix project was perhaps the biggest excitement, in part because it’s the first time a major space mission has been controlled by a University once it’s on the surface of the planet. It clearly has had a very large impact, from a public perception point of view, on the University of Arizona—in fact the University is marketing itself world-wide around the Mars Phoenix mission, simply because we’re going to have an international press pull here. It’s a great opportunity.