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To Mars and Beyond

Introductory remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Mars Rover Curiosity Lecture
Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Auditorium
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Friday, August 31, 2012

Good afternoon and welcome. Today is a day of celebration and exploration. We share our joy over the successful landing and early operation of Curiosity, America’s most recent rover to visit Mars. We are fortunate to have a true insider, Dr. Laurie Leshin, the Dean of our School of Science, here to share the excitement and answer questions. But before I introduce her, I would like to offer my own reflections on this occasion.

Few enterprises exemplify the power, importance, and thrill of science like the Curiosity mission. This spacecraft only reached its destination – a spot within a crater on Mars after a journey of over 350 million miles—because of our knowledge of materials, fuels, and celestial mechanics. Its quest is fundamental: gathering evidence that will help us answer the age-old question, are we alone on the universe?

And for exhilaration, few missions have matched the “seven minutes of terror” of Curiosity’s landing, where an intricate series of maneuvers needed to be executed flawlessly… or Curiosity would have been lost.

The Curiosity mission demonstrates what we gain when we make a commitment to basic research:

  • We push ourselves to achieve the impossible.
  • We open up new paths for ourselves and for the generations to come.
  • And we come to better appreciate Nature and our place within it.

It is no coincidence that this mission goes by the name of Curiosity. It feeds our hunger for knowledge. Our own curiosity leads to the kind of focused attention that provides insights. And it helps us to come up with new, more nuanced questions that probe, test, and even challenge our assumptions.

You never know where a good question will take you.

Do not be surprised if this is, at times, uncomfortable. The state of curiosity is a state where things do not add up. While many people will deny the data, force the fit or move on to something else, the curious person will put up with uncertainty. Curious people take in new data, test hypotheses, dare to doubt, wonder about new possibilities, and ask great questions. Eventually, they do reach an understanding, but it is rarely a conventional understanding.

Curiosity provides us with a different way to see the world, remaking us into the kind of explorers we were as children. It creates a starting point for creativity, motivating the actions that produce inventions and works of art. And curiosity can be infectious so it is often a starting point for building relationships across disciplines.

Driven by curiosity, we move beyond the familiar, and that, in and of itself, creates new opportunities. Working at the borders, making our way into new frontiers, has provided our species with new ideas and perspectives, as well as new resources, and, ultimately, increased prosperity.

We at Rensselaer feel a connection to this NASA mission because we hunger for knowledge. And, also, because exploration is part of our heritage.

Indeed, we have a special relationship with NASA. Jack Swigert ‘65, flew on Apollo 13, and Richard Mastracchio ‘87 is still an active NASA astronaut who has flown on three Shuttle missions.

Former Rensselaer President and alumnus George M. Low ‘48 was manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office. Under his direction, NASA flew eight Apollo missions including Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing. Low’s son, G. David Low ‘95, became an astronaut and flew on three Shuttle missions.

During Homecoming on October 6, we will be treated to the observations of three of our alumni who are part of the Curiosity team, but I will not ask you to wait until then to satisfy your curiosity.

Allow me to introduce a member of NASA’s science team for this mission.

Dr. Laurie Leshin is the Dean of our School of Science, where she leads Rensselaer’s scientific academic and research enterprise—including interdisciplinary and translational research in biotechnology, nanoscience, energy, data science, and astrobiology.

Dean Leshin is coming up on her one-year anniversary since joining Rensselaer. In that time she has worked closely with me, other Rensselaer leaders, and with our faculty to move the science enterprise forward, increasing research funding, filling vacant Department Head positions, overseeing a major overhaul of the School's website, planning for the new Center for Science, and spearheading a faculty expansion initiative – we are on a path to hire more than a dozen new science faculty in the coming year.

Prior to joining us, Dean Leshin spent six years serving in senior leadership positions at NASA. As the Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, she played a leading role in planning NASA's future human spaceflight endeavors. She also was engaged in initiating the development of commercial human spaceflight capabilities to low earth orbit.

Before coming to NASA, Dean Leshin was The Dee and John Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences, and the Director of the Center for Meteorites Studies at Arizona State University.

Dr. Leshin is the recipient of numerous awards, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal for her work. She also holds the distinction of having an asteroid named after her, 4922 Leshin.

She received her B.S. in Chemistry in 1987 from Arizona State University, and her Ph.D. in Geochemistry in 1994 from the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Leshin’s association with Curiosity dates back to its beginnings, eleven years ago, and she helped to define its scientific goals. She participated in the development of two of its ten on board instruments.

A few weeks ago, when Curiosity was lowered by cables onto the Martian surface from a rocket stage that hovered overhead, she was at the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Spaceflight Operations Facility, sharing the moment with her colleagues.

I hope I have piqued your curiosity—allow me now to present Dean Leshin.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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