11/14/2012 06:49 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

An Interview With GRAIL Principal Investigator Maria Zuber, Part 2: 'Something No One Else Has Ever Known'

Because my conversation with Maria Zuber, MIT Geophysics Professor and head scientist for NASA's GRAIL mission, went on for quite a while, I had to split it into two posts to keep it from being too long. In the last post, Dr. Zuber described the incredible precision with which the twin GRAIL probes must operate to successfully map the moon's gravity field, as well as some of the science they're returned.

In this section, our conversation turns more emotional, as Professor Zuber discusses how she was inspired to become a scientist, the most exciting moments of the mission so far, how scientists and artists can best collaborate to communicate the wonders of exploration, and the student scientists who surpassed her wildest expectations...

Me: What would you say so far has been the most exciting or the best thing that has happened, the most exciting experience so far in the course of the GRAIL mission?

Maria Zuber (MZ): Let's see... there's no doubt that the biggest adrenaline rush was the launch. There's nothing like launching your own rocket, no matter what experience you have, it's hard to beat launching your own rocket. I guess my marriage and the birth of my children and the launch of my rocket, those are the defining experiences in my life.

Me: (laughs)

MZ: Of course, family always first, but rocket launches are right up there. And having the two spacecrafts get into orbit.

What's very interesting, and this is a little bit hard to describe, is that these spacecrafts, they're machines. You start with some aluminum, you start with circuit boards, you put all the stuff together, you wire it up, you put software on it, and it's something that you create. And what's amazing is that you send it to this faraway place, and it does what you tell it to do.

It's very hard to explain. You built it, of course it does what you tell it to do, but what I liken it to is when you fly in an airplane. I love to fly in airplanes. Whenever I take off in an airplane, its amazing to me, I think it's amazing that an airplane can fly. And I know exactly why an airplane should fly, lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, the plane takes off. But to me, it's just a wonderful thing to me whenever an airplane takes off.

So the fact that you can send these machines far, far away and you tell them what to do and they do what you tell them, perfectly, is to me, I just can't even describe what a thrill it is. And when the data comes down, I look at the raw data all the time, it's coming down on my computer right now. You look at this data that nobody's ever seen before, so there's a period in my life every day where I look at what we have, and I have information in front of me that nobody in the history of humanity has ever seen before.

And of course, what I want to do is analyze it and write it up so that everybody can analyze it and everybody can have it, but knowing that you're part of a group of people that has discovered something and has known something that nobody else has ever known...

Me: That's real exploration.

MZ: You never get tired of it. No matter how long I've worked on this, or how long I will work on it, I will never get over the thrill of knowing something for the first time that hasn't been known before.

Me: Do you feel a sense of having a remote presence, of feeling that it's part of you that's there, is it sort of a sense of feeling as if you are there in a way?

MZ: Absolutely. In fact, I'm on leave this semester to fly my two spacecrafts, I had to go to a meeting of the faculty for something and I walked into the room, and I said, "Alright, back from the moon for an hour!" (laughs) "And then I'm going back!"

We never say, "Our spacecrafts are at the moon", we always say "We're at the moon". It's something that everybody on the team feels. We're there, collecting these observations, our spacecrafts are doing it for us, but there's no doubt at all that we feel like we're there with them.

Me: I suppose the corollary to asking what the best thing or most exciting thing was is to ask, what has so far been the worst part?

MZ: Oh, the worst part... well, probably the, uh, I don't know if it's the lack of sleep... well, you get over that. (laughs)

Over the course of the mission, even a mission that goes very well, you get scrutinized by a lot of review boards that are extremely critical, and they need to be critical. But even though we did incredibly well, technically, schedule, budget-wise, there were times when I felt that we weren't doing so well because of the scrutiny that we were getting.

But I'm really glad that we got that scrutiny, because if the boards hadn't been as probing as they were, we might not have been as successful as we are right now.

Me: What has been the strangest part, or the most unexpected?

MZ: So, that's actually a good question, because it ties into something that I wanted to mention. We did an education program on the mission, called --

Me: MoonKAM?

MZ: MoonKAM. MoonKAM turned on again yesterday for the extended duration mission, because we'd had to hold off for a while because our operations were just so complex getting the spacecraft into orbit that we had to get that understood before we could start up doing the education part again.

What has amazed me is how far beyond the lesson plan the students have gone with studying the images [from MoonKAM]. We've collected over 100,000 images for students, the students targeted the images, the students uploaded the commands and the students downloaded the pictures that they had targeted, and our colleagues at Sally Ride Science had developed activities in the classroom for students to study the images, but the students went well, well beyond what was in the activities to try to understand what was in the images.

They researched these areas themselves, we had one group of student that took an image of a crater that was 40 meters across, and they wanted to understand what that meant, so they got permission to go out on the Texas Tech football field and draw a big circle 40 meters across to be able to say, "Wow, 40 meters is actually pretty big across", even though that's a tiny crater on the moon.

There were students who, in addition to analyzing the images, read literature books about the moon, did art related to the moon, studied the moon's place in history, so it's just been incredible what an impetus this was for students. The students were just so motivated to understand these images.

When Sally Ride and I designed this experiment, we thought the students would be very interested because it was their own images of the moon, and it was just incredible how motivated they were, so we really believe we're on to something in terms of creating a really, really transformative educational experience for students.

Me: Did you have moments like that when you were young, when you got very into what was going on, and you knew that was what you wanted to do?

MZ: I've always known that I wanted to study space. I can't even begin to think what I would have done if I'd had the opportunity we've provided for these students. I built my own telescopes, I looked at the sky... you're interested in space, so you've clearly done a lot of this.

Me: I ask a lot of people this question, some people have one moment [that got them inspired] and some people don't.

MZ: There was never one single moment for me, but I am certain that we created many of these moments for the students in the MoonKAM experiment. We never expected all of them to want to grow up and work for NASA, what we wanted to do was to motivate them.

This was targeted at middle school. Middle school is the time when students have to decide, do I take the harder math that puts me in the AP track, or do I take the easier math, and then I can't take advanced science. So why take a hard course when you can take an easier course? Well, if you can do cool stuff like that, that's a strong motivation to take the harder math. So we're hoping this inspires kids to study math and science and take classes in engineering and science in general.

This is all about us creating opportunities for us to realize that to advance as a society, we need scientists and engineers, but we also need informed voters, who understand complicated issues associated with the environment, with climate, with the world around us. Who understand traffic flow, energy, medical issues, there are a lot of things going on in the world today where you have to have a pretty good understanding of science to be on top of.

Me: You said that there were students who were interested in the moon artistically and historically, how do you feel about people who have other talents and are interested in the missions, their contributions? For example, the class who named the probes? I know there are a lot of engineers who, when they see artistic stuff, they don't understand it, or they say, "Oh, that's nice, but whatever", so how do you feel about other talents contributing?

MZ: Last year, for MIT's 150th anniversary, they had five institute symposia. I co-organized one on exploration, and as part of the exploration symposium, we had a storyteller come and tell stories about exploration, and we held a student competition, and we held an art exhibit, because we wanted exploration not just to be about the technology and the science.

We thought that "exploration" really should cover all aspects of endeavor -- the humanities, the social sciences, all of that comes into it. We all felt the same way, to the extent that you could broaden up the participation to encompass everybody's interests. Because exploration, it's so much fun!

Me: Yes.

MZ: What could be better than discovering something? So we broaden it -- everybody's good at something. Not everybody's good at math and science, although we're hoping to help people find talents in that field, but there are people with talents in literature and the arts and it's fantastic if all of these elements can be brought to bear on this problem. Artists are able to see things that I wouldn't see if I looked at something.

Me: I really do think it's incredible sometimes, when you have people with different talents who are talking about the same thing, and you have people who can make -- I'm an archeologist -- historical connections. I remember when the Mars rovers first landed, there was this really great article in National Geographic where they mentioned that each of the rovers had one arm, and they were comparing it to John Wesley Powell, who was an explorer of the Grand Canyon, who had only one arm.

MZ: Right.

Me: And they made all of these really great comparisons, and they were saying, surely the spirit of John Wesley Powell is riding with us on Mars, and I went, "That is so..."

MZ: It's great.

Me: That's a really great thought.

MZ: I hadn't seen that, but it's really good.

Me: Now, I asked you this question before, when we were at the Mars event with Dr. Elachi, and I guess I want to ask it again for the blog post now. You said when the probes were launched that they were like your children, and you were thinking of them as GRAIL A and GRAIL B, because that's what they were called. Now they have names, they're Ebb and Flow, do you think of them as Ebb and Flow in your head?

MZ: Yes, I do. Although for the software, we use "A" and "B", we always put "Ebb and Flow" in parentheses now, to give them names. The names have been very popular. A lot of people out there know the names. It's interesting, because the two of them were designed to be nearly identical, but they have slightly different behavior.

Me: That's just what I was going to ask.

MZ: It's very slight, in terms of battery charging levels. Slight, slight, slight differences that don't really make a difference in the performance, but it's just like you have children, and children are different, these spacecrafts are different. You can sort of at this point predict what their behavior will be.

Me: I've been following them since the beginning, and I've heard people talk about the Spirit and Opportunity rovers as having personalities, because we have had so many experiences to judge by.

MZ: They behave.

Me: Yeah.

MZ: I'll tell you, my spacecrafts, they behave really well, it's easier to predict what they'll do than it is to predict what my friends or family will do, because people can be somewhat unpredictable!

Me: You said that you built your own telescopes when you were younger, what other projects did you do as a science enthusiast when you were younger?

MZ: When I was growing up, I lived in eastern Pennsylvania, in anthracite country. I built my own telescopes, I taught myself optics, and I ground my own lenses, I made my own eyepieces. And I spent lots, and lots, and lots of time looking up at the sky. So I knew the night sky like the back of my hand.

I did a lot of that, I did some geology, but not as much. Space was really my thing. Building equipment, too.

Me: I see you've got a LEGO box [here in your office]. Did you play with LEGO?

MZ: I did play with LEGO. [I follow her over to look at a LEGO model spacecraft on her desk]

Me: Ohhhhh, that's awesome!

MZ: Yeah, that's the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we have that in LEGO.

Me: Is that a kit?

MZ: Yes, I think you can probably order it online.

Me: That's incredible, can I take pictures of that later?

MZ: Sure.

Me: So you still build with LEGO?

MZ: I still do, although I had an undergrad build that.

Me: I know that there's a petition to make a Curiosity LEGO set and I really hope they work that out.

MZ: They probably will.

Me: Thank you so much, I don't want to take any more of your time, I got a lot of really good data. Thank you for your time.

That night, it was clear, and the Boston University Astronomical Society had a meeting. While some of the more technically-minded students were photographing the moon with a computer-controlled telescope, I looked through its eyepiece. The view was still and crisp, with mountains and craters clearly visible. During our conversation, both Professor Zuber and I had generically referred to the moon as "a planet" because we were comparing it to planets, even though the moon is technically a satellite of the Earth, and now I understood why -- the moon may not be a planet, but it is a WORLD, a real place, with its own geology and geography, a place that can be visited and studied.