An Unexpected Adventure: Roger Wiens on Faith, Science, and Mars
Scientist Roger Wiens discusses his book Red Rover and reflects on his passion for space exploration and on the relationship between his work and his faith.
Life didn’t turn out exactly as Roger Wiens expected, but he couldn’t be happier about it. Indeed, it’s been quite the adventure. Though he has always been fascinated by space, he never thought he would be able to explore and experience it himself. However, through a series of events, he was able to do just that, robotically. Today, Wiens is the Principal Investigator for ChemCam—one of the instruments being utilized on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. He has also been selected as the Principal Investigator of the SuperCam team, which will be operating during NASA’s next mission to Mars, set to launch in 2020. His book, Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration, from Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity offers a personal glimpse into his journey from childhood to adulthood as one who is fascinated by the heavens. In it, he focuses especially on his experiences as a scientist who has dedicated most of his professional life to space exploration, especially to the exploration of Mars. The questions and answers of the following interview focus on his journey, as well as the relationship between his profession and his faith.
Mahala Rethlake: How did you get involved in NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity project?
Roger Wiens: The answer to that question is a big part of my book. I grew up in a Mennonite community in the middle of nowhere, but I had this intense interest in science. Even so, I thought my purpose in life was to save the world, so in my mind I was pursuing a career in tent-making missions or relief work. God kept steering me back to my scientific interests. Leading a project like the ChemCam laser instrument on the Mars rover seemed the most improbable thing in the world, but through some very extraordinary events it became a reality.
MR: Tell us a bit about ChemCam. What is it? What makes it an important instrument on the Mars rover Curiosity? What kind of information does it contribute to science and, briefly, how?
Wiens: ChemCam is the laser instrument that fires at rocks from the rover’s mast. We use a laser beam with the energy of a million light bulbs, focusing it to a spot the size of a pinhead, and illuminating the target for five-billionths of a second. With a brief flash this blasts away a very small amount of the target. Observing the color spectrum of the plasma allows us to determine the composition of the targets up to a distance of 25 feet away. In this way we get to analyze all of the rover’s surroundings without having to drive up to each and every sample. This rapid analysis technique has allowed us to discover features that would have remained hidden if the rover had to drive up to each target it sampled.
MR: Various anecdotes in the book make it clear that there is a special place in your heart for space exploration, but even more specifically for Mars. For example, you mention your passion for rocketry and astronomy as a young child. You and your brother even built your own telescope in order to view Mars one summer. What is it about this particular planet that fascinates you?
Wiens: Mars is clearly a destination for humans, God willing. Unlike the Moon or anywhere else besides Earth, Mars has 24 hour days, water, weather, wind, and ancient rivers, lakes, and oceans. It is tantalizingly like Earth. The telltale features left from flowing water have led us to wonder what kind of hospitable environment the planet had in the past, whether it ever had life, and whether we could possibly make it habitable in the future.
MR: What are your hopes for the remainder of the Curiosity Mars rover mission and for future missions to Mars?
Wiens: Curiosity has opened a lot of questions: with this mission we have seen transient methane signals and have found organic molecules. Are these signs of life on our neighboring planet or not? We would like to understand the implications of these discoveries. So the rover will drive up into more clay-rich regions on Mount Sharp, sampling along the way. Longer term, NASA selected a successor to ChemCam for a future rover to launch to Mars in 2020. That new mission is to collect samples for return to Earth sometime in the future. Once we have retrieved samples from the surface of Mars, NASA will be able to consider sending humans there. There is not so much intrinsic rationale for having a human mission to the red planet, but I believe it will jump start the process of terraforming Mars so people could live there sometime far in the future, God willing.
MR: How would you describe the relationship between your Christian faith and your passion for science?
Wiens: We have a God-given curiosity (no pun intended) to explore his universe. This curiosity sets us apart from the rest of creation.
MR: What is it like to be a Christian in the scientific community?
Wiens: To me, being a Christian fuels the drive to understand more about our universe. It also instills a great sense of humility. The scientific establishment often implies that our society knows almost all there is to know, but my perspective as a Christian is that we still know very little about God’s universe. Think of this word picture: we live in a fish bowl, confined within 13 billion light years. At least for now we cannot explore outside of that box, beyond those confines of space and perhaps also outside of our constraint of unidirectional time. We don’t know the future and we can hardly see into the past. But I believe in the age to come God will reveal all of this to us when we are with him.
Unfortunately, many scientists have an antiquated view of Christianity, colored by the many anti-intellectuals within Christendom. Many scientists opt for agnosticism, drawing an arbitrary line with what is known by science, ignoring philosophy and the things we can understand outside of the scientific empiricism of the day. But there are others in my field who are believers.
MR: What is it like to be a scientist in the Christian community?
Wiens: Being a scientist in the Christian community, now that’s a little difficult at times. Most of Christendom is egocentric, humanistic, instead of focusing on God. It is stuck on humans being the center of the universe and the center of creation. Because of this, many Christians have stubbornly resisted understanding the vastness of God’s creation in time and space.
But it is great to know other believers in my field. I’ll close by mentioning an exchange I had with a Christian professor who exclaimed to me after the rover’s successful landing: “Thank you for bringing God to Mars!” I replied, “On the contrary, he’s been there all along!”
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