This Thursday a Mars rover will make its descent to the surface of the Red Planet, in an event known to NASA scientists as the “seven minutes of terror.” The Perseverance mission will land in a dry lakebed and look for signs of ancient life, and also collect rock samples which will be stored in hopes of returning them to Earth one day. Aaron Yazzie is a Navajo mechanical engineer and a member of the NASA team. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with him about his journey from Holbrook to Mars.
Listen to an extended 14-minute version of the interview below, in which Aaron Yazzie discusses the "seven minutes of terror," sending a tiny helicopter to Mars, and the search for life on other planets.
Tell me about yourself. How did you end up being a mechanical engineer for a Mars mission?
I’m originally from Northern Arizona.… Coming from that area, I didn’t really see myself, I didn’t know that this job at NASA was something I was going to be able to do. But I think I worked hard and dreamed big…. Along the way I had a few internships and was lucky enough to get some at some NASA centers. I think that’s what really set me up for eventually getting my job at NASA JPL.
You know, whenever I drive out to Holbrook or Tuba City I always think: this landscape looks so much like Mars!
Did that inspire when you were growing up there, connecting with the landscape in that way?
I think for sure growing up in the Northern Arizona deserts had an impact on me. Now when I’m working on this Mars mission and I see the beautiful panoramas that the Mars Curiosity rover is sending down, I see Northern Arizona, I see the Southwest, in those pictures. It reminds me of my childhood running up and down those mesas and playing in the sand. I always joke about it to people here, that I grew up understanding how sand and rocks work, and that’s really helped me understand how to manipulate them, how to gather samples from them for my job.
Tell me about that, so your role on this Mars mission, you built the drill bits, right, that are going to drill into rocks on Mars?
That’s correct. The Perseverance rover has an entire elaborate sample acquisition and caching system. What that means is that it can drive around the deserts of Mars and use its cameras to scan the area and help scientists identify areas that might have interesting looking rocks that they might want to study. We can drive up closer to those rocks, we can extend a giant robotic arm that has a powerful coring drill at the end of it…. There’s a coring bit that we use that will drill into the rock and extract a rock core that’s just a cylindrical piece of rock, maybe about the size of a piece of chalk, maybe a little bit wider. It’s collected straight into this extremely clean sample tube and we pass that rock core and sample tube back inside the rover where we store it safely, so that one day we’re hoping to bring those rock samples back to Earth someday.
So why rocks, what can we learn by looking at Mars rocks?
These rocks have been around since the early development of the planet, like 3.5 billion years. When we’re able to grab a rock sample we can look through all the layers, look at all the tiny little chemical makeup or signatures that are hidden within the rock, to figure out evidence about what Mars’ climate used to be like way back when, to see if there was every life possibly on that planet. That’s the key question we’re trying to answer with this mission, is: was there ever ancient life on Mars?
What do you think the answer’s going to be?
I think it’s possible. If Mars is our closest relative, then why wouldn’t they have developed life just like life developed here on Earth? It’s going to be an incredible discovery when and if we make that, and I’m very excited for that.
Do you have any message you want to share with the folks back home?
Myself being Navajo, being Native American, and also getting to be an engineer that gets to work on a project like Perseverance, it’s just so exciting. I’m so happy to be a representative of my people and I hope that young kids from Northern Arizona, from the area and the region where I grew up, can see themselves in the future working on big things like this if they want to. You just have to persevere, and you have to keep dreaming and follow those dreams.
Aaron Yazzie, good luck on the mission and thank you for speaking with me.
Thank you so much.
Live coverage of the mission's landing on Mars begins at 12:15 Mountain Standard Time on Thursday, Feb. 18. Learn how to watch here: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/timeline/landing/watch-online/