A Life in Pursuit of the Secret Mars

October 3, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

By Richard Firstman

With space shuttles  relegated to riding piggyback to their retirements as museums, Mars has finally risen to its moment as the mothership of American space exploration. Seven Minutes of Terror was the summer blockbuster, and Curiosity is the most famous off-road vehicle since the Hummer.

To Joel Levine, it’s about time Mars got its due.

Earthlings may have only recently come to associate the Red Planet more with planetary science than interplanetary invasion, but Levine has been transfixed by the mysteries of Mars since childhood.  He’s 70 now, and from his undergraduate days at Brooklyn College in the early 1960s — when all anyone was talking about was beating the Russians to the moon — through his 41-year career at NASA, Levine has been consumed by the questions that the $2.5 billion rover will spend the next two years exploring: Is there now, or has there ever been, life on Mars?

Levine, now a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, was part of the panel of scientists that selected the instruments Curiosity is using on Mars. (His part alone accounted for $180 million.) He was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for the spectacular landing on August 6, watching the now-famous control room that erupted in euphoria when Curiosity floated to the surface and the mission controller announced, “We are wheels down on Mars. Oh, my God!”

Levine may have been a support player in the Curiosity mission but he’s unabashedly thinking ahead to one he hopes will be on the runway someday: For 12 years he’s been the chief scientist for a NASA project called ARES, for aerial regional-scale environmental surveyor — NASA-speak for a robotic, rocket-powered airplane that would make the eight-month trip to Mars and then fly a mile above the surface, covering more of the planet in two hours than Curiosity will in two years.

It’s the question of life on Mars — and the clues that might be there for the taking — that has consumed Levine and propelled his career as one of NASA’s top Mars scientists for four decades. “We always knew the moon was a hostile environment and there wasn’t any chance of life,” he says. “But there has always been the question of life on Mars, because its early history is much like the Earth’s. It had lakes and rivers and oceans, and its atmosphere was a hundred times thicker, like the atmosphere of Earth. So the question is did life form on Mars, and if so, what happened to that life? Is it still there?”

Joel Levine was an 11-year-old boy, the son of a social worker and a bookkeeper, when he discovered Mars in East New York. “I was in the sixth grade at PS 182,” he says. “The library got a new science book and it had the first pictures of Mars taken with the Mount Palomar telescope, which was then the biggest telescope in the world. There were beautiful color photographs of this red planet, a body just like the earth, and I remember distinctly how exciting it was.”

It was 1954 — long before men on the moon and stations in space, before Apollo and Gemini and even Sputnik, and nearly 60 years before Curiosity floated to the Martian surface. It was the beginning of an obsession. As a young teenager Levine would spend nights peering faintly at Mars through a small telescope set up on the roof of his house. Then one day when he was a student at Thomas Jefferson High School, Levine heard that the observatory on the roof of Brooklyn College’s science building, Ingersoll Hall, had monthly open nights when the public could look through its high-powered telescope.

“I was just amazed, looking at planet Mars for the first time through a big telescope, and that’s when I decided that this was the field I wanted to go into.” He spent a year tracking and photographing sunspots for a citywide science contest and won first prize — a scientific trip to the Arctic Circle aboard a Navy cruiser.

Levine returned to Brooklyn College as a student. Officially he was a physics major but he spent more time at the observatory, where he caught the eye of the director, a physics and astronomy professor named Theodore A. Smits. “He taught courses in astronomy and space science and offered special classes where I was the only student,” Levine recalls. “I did a lot of sophisticated research with him, particularly on the atmosphere of Mars.”

Levine graduated in 1964 and went to work as a graduate research assistant at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which NASA had opened next door to Columbia University to pursue theoretical research in the space sciences. By night, he went home to Brooklyn to teach classes at his alma mater. In 1972, Levine left for the University of Michigan, where he earned a second master’s, in planetary science and aeronomy (the study of the upper atmosphere) and then a Ph.D. in atmospheric science.

“Brooklyn College prepared me for a very good career,” says Levine, who delivered the keynote address at the college’s commencement for master’s degrees in 2011, paying tribute to his mentor, Professor Smits. “Michigan had the best program in atmospheric and planetary science, and I had the training to compete very well with students from Harvard, Yale, Cal Tech.”

Mars was always in the atmosphere, and it was Levine’s six years at the Goddard Institute that gave his career a foundation. A main focus at Goddard was using data collected by telescopes and space probes to create computer models of planetary atmospheres. In the early 1970s, while still a graduate student at Michigan, Levine developed models for the atmosphere of Mars and became the first scientist to suggest the presence of two gases found on Earth — argon and helium. Two years later, in 1976, NASA’s Viking space probes became the first spacecraft to land on the surface of Mars to look for “biosignatures” of life. Among the things found were argon and helium.

Levine was such a hot young Mars scientist at the Goddard Institute that even before he’d left for Michigan NASA hired him as a research scientist at its  Langley Research Center in Virginia, which was developing the Viking Mars Project. He eventually moved permanently to Langley and established a career that lasted until last year, when he joined the full-time faculty at William and Mary, bringing his ARES project with him. “I was at NASA for 41 years and one day,” Levine says, ever a man of precision, “and never had a dull moment.” (His wife, Arlene Spielholz Levine, a Queens College graduate with a Ph.D. in counseling, eventually went to work for NASA herself, studying the psychological effects of long periods in space, and she left when he did. They had a joint retirement party.)

So what is it about Mars that continues to tantalize him? Levine says it comes down to this: “Something happened, some catastrophic event, that changed Mars from an Earth-like planet to the very desolate, inhospitable planet it is today. What happened — and does it portend anything for the fate of the earth?”

And there is, of course, that question of life on Mars. “What we are really interested in is whether we find gases that are produced by living systems,” he explains. “The problem with the rover we just put up there is that it will travel only about 20 miles in two years, so it will be looking at a very small section of Mars. What the ARES airplane will do that no rover has done is cover hundreds to thousands of miles and analyze all the gasses in the atmosphere of Mars, down to one-tenth of one part per million.”

ARES was a finalist among 25 proposals NASA considered in 2002, but the agency has since selected a series of landers, including the vehicle eventually named Curiosity by the 12-year-old winner of a national name-the-rover contest. The next one,  in 2016, will be a lander called InSight that will cover even less ground than Curiosity — it won’t move at all once it sets down. But NASA has continued to support the development of ARES.  “There will be another opportunity to propose missions to Mars in 2013 or 2014,” Levine says, “and we will re-propose ARES.”

Whatever unmanned vehicles go up over the next few years, Levine thinks the quest shouldn’t stop there. He co-chaired an international panel of scientists convened to consider whether there is scientific justification to send humans to Mars. “The answer is yes,” Levine says, perhaps not surprisingly. He co-edited a book published in 2010: Humans to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet — a 976-page work that Levine describes as merely “a summary of our three-year study.”

Levine is well aware that many people think there are better ways to spend billions of dollars, and he’s become a passionate defender of the investment to those who don’t see the point. A couple of years ago he gave a TED talk (“Why we need to go back to Mars”) that’s been viewed by 305,000 people so far.

“In 1965, after the Mariner 4 fly-by mission took the first close-up pictures of the Mars surface, people thought it looked like a dead planet,” Levine says. “The New York Times editorialized against spending a penny more on it. But now we know it is far from a dead planet. Two of the most fundamental questions in all of science are how did the planets form and is there life outside Earth. Mars is our best chance to try to answer both those questions.”