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John Grant

Observation Coordinator : Landscape Evolution
HiRISE Instrument
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Smithsonian Institute

How long have you worked with NASA and where did your interest in planetary science begin?

I got my first grant in 1995 and now am involved in 4 different research programs and two missions to Mars.  My interest in Planetary Geology began with a fascination with science fiction in general and Mars in particular.  I was always interested in how similar or different landscapes on the planets would evolve and why.

What subjects did you like best in school and how did what you learned in school help pave the path to your career?

I loved all of the science classes that I took and especially enjoyed field trips.  I don't remember any specific presentations that I made, but know that I have always enjoyed Earth Science the most... even back in 9th grade in high school.  I often took things from the classroom and compared them to what I saw around me while I was growing up.  I believe that this helped provide the relevance and practical experience that sparked my interest in geology.

Were any subjects particularly difficult for you or was there anything you didn't like?

I had some trouble with math for a time, but realized that it was critical to understanding the kinds of planetary questions that intrigued me.  I focused hard on math, and eventually got to a point where I was more comfortable and found it to be more relevant to my interests.

What were your favorite activities as a child?

I grew up in Plattsburgh in northern New York State on the shores of Lake Champlain.  Anything to do with the lake (from the beach to water skiing) pretty well encompassed my interests as a kid.  I liked to play along the shore of Lake Champlain building miniature dams, canals, and other public works projects.

Do you remember watching or reading about any events in space when you were a child?

Two things peaked my interest in space science and Mars: the Apollo moon landings and reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.  Even though I did not know that a field such as planetary geology existed, after those events, I realized what it was that I wanted to do.

What did you do as a co-chair for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Landing workshops?

The purpose of the workshops was to get input from the science community regarding which of the potential landing sites on Mars were best suited to the two Mars Exploration Rovers.  As co-chair of the process, I was charged with making sure all the folks that were interested and doing relevant research had a voice in the process.  Then, once those voices had all been heard, I had to help steer the discussion to a concensus on the relative merits and potential of the sites.

While it could have been like herding cats, it really was not.  The key was making folks understand the importance of coming to consensus if they wanted their input to matter.  Once we got that point across, the "local favorites" being promoted by individuals tended to drop off the list and only the ones that best fit the misson saftey and science objectives retained strong advocacy.  I think that the process worked extremely well and that people felt that their opinions mattered.  As a result, there was a genuine interest in participating and I believe that selection of the best possible landing sites was, in part, enabled by the community involvement in the activities.

What type of scientist are you?  What path did you take to lead to your involvement in Mars exploration?

I would label myself as a process geomorphologist and am interested in how various processes combine and interact over time to create a landscape.  When I went to college, I thought that the best way to get involved in planetary exploration was via working at a planetarium.  While I soon discovered that this was not the case, I simultaneously learned that geology and landscape evolution were extremely interesting.  So, I became a geology major.  Upon starting graduate school, I heard that my advisor was doing some mapping of Mars.  I talked with him about it and eventually ended up involved in his mapping project and learning about planetary geology.  I became so interested that I decided to go on for my PhD and was accepted at a University (Brown) with a large planetary program.  The first mission I became involved with was the Mars Exploration Rovers mission.  HiRISE is my second and I am hooked.  I hope to participate on many more.

How hard is it to study something geologically when you don't have a physical sample to work with?  How is geology done remotely different from.... say.... fieldwork?

I've done lots of field work and find that I frequently relate to my experience in the field to help appreciate the scale and juxtaposition of various landforms.  This practical field experience helps provide context for what is viewed remotely on Mars, and, I would argue, can provide a template for constraining the processes that have shaped the surface of Mars over time.

What were you doing in the summer of 1976 when the four Viking spacecraft arrived at Mars?  At that time, did you ever imagine you would be involved in landing site selections for something like MER?

I was in high school and followed the mission with interest.  I had lots of posters about the mission on my walls and did lots of reading on the mission.  At that time, I had no idea that the planetary geology field existed, but I knew I wanted to be involved in the exploration of Mars.  Having said that, if anyone had told me then that I would one day contribute to the process of selecting landing sites, I'd have told them they were kidding themselves.

What has been the most exciting thing you have been part of in Mars exploration to date?

The excitement of discovery... knowing that you are looking at things that no one else has seen before and trying to understand how they formed.

How long do you expect to be doing this?  What do you imagine yourself doing in 5 or 10 years?

I hope to continue in Planetary Science until I retire.  I love my job here at the Smithsonian and the research and missions that I am involved with.  I am working on a ground penetrating radar that could be deployed from a rover during a future mission to Mars.  Five or ten years from now, I hope that I will be involved in a mission that sees that dream come true.

With the information you have to date, if you could travel to Mars yourself or send a mission of your choice, where would you go and why?

On this one I am a bit biased.  I've spent a long time looking at and thinking about the channels and valleys that converge on the Margaritifer Sinus region.  I'd love to stand on the surface of where these channels once converged and flooded in the past and see for my own eyes the landscapes that were sculpted.  While probably not the best location to go and solve all the "riddles" of Mars, my personal interest in this region is what motivates me to go there.  I guess that is similar to taking a vacation on the Earth.  Not everyone wants to go to the same place, but all have their own reasons for selecting where they want to go.

Do you have any words for the young students reading this interview about future opportunities that lie ahead for them?

Having grown up in a small town in "the middle of nowhere" I followed my interests and wound up doing what I wanted to do.  (Well, I guess it was not really in the middle of nowhere, but it was certainly a bit off the beaten track.)  It does not matter where you start or what you want to do, if you work hard and really want to do something, the opportunity will be there.

- 5 October 2003


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Last Updated:
3 January 2004

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