LAS CRUCES – From the time he was six years old, James Rice was fascinated by space exploration. While he describes himself as a highly average student, as a boy growing up in 1960s Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he devoured the biographies of scientists and explorers, and followed the news of the Apollo Space Program intently.
Supportive of his interest, Rice’s parents would take him to the NASA center in Alabama., and allow him to stay home from school to listen to the news coverage of the Apollo Program news. As soon as the news was over, he was sent back to school where he couldn’t understand why none of the other children were as excited as he was. For Rice, it has never been a question about why we should care about space, but who wouldn’t?
“If it doesn’t give you a thrill exploring a planet for the first time, I don’t know what will,” Rice said, and he speaks from experience.
The boy who watched men walk on the moon would, 35 years later, be selected by NASA to serve on the Mars rover team. After a long and circuitous route, Rice said he finally had his opportunity to see the first glimpses of another planet’s surface as he controlled both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
Rice had been in involved in Mars landing site selection for every NASA Mars Mission since the Mars Pathfinder in 1995. As a co-investigator and geology team leader on the NASA Rover Project, he’d purposely chosen landing sites on opposite sides of Mars. While controlling both rovers left him with only four hours of sleep at night, and two hours of flex time for rest during the day, Rice said he could sleep in the grave. This was the chance of a lifetime.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d had time to go home,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to sleep. I had too much adrenaline from the excitement of wondering what we’d discover next.”
The excitement lasted longer than anyone had expected — or budgeted. What was proposed as an expedition of a few months became an adventure that spanned over 15 years. The limited funds meant the teams were forced to work from their home institutions in a dedicated group effort that changed and paved the way for future technologies and communication while, Rice said, “rewriting the textbooks on Mars.”
NASA’s Opportunity Rover Mission came to an end in February of this year. Rice said though the rover may have been built from bits of aluminum and silicon, losing Opportunity was like losing a good friend. The team knew the night before it was announced to the public, and on top of their loss was the knowledge that the team would disband. They’d worked hard to keep the rovers alive, and Rice said it was a loss everyone would continue to feel.
While Rice said he will miss waking up and seeing new photos of Mars every morning, he believes humankind and Mars continue to have a future together.
“It sounds like science fiction, but I’ve no doubt we’ll live on Mars someday,” he said. “When it happens and who does it is yet to be determined.”
Rice continues to work as an astrogeologist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona and will be visiting Las Cruces for the Space Festival in April. Rice will offer a talk titled “From the Sea of Tranquility to the Mountains of Mars.” The sea of tranquility in the title refers to the Apollo landing site on the moon, and Rice said he plans to speak of how close the 1960s Space Race was, the work of the Mars rovers, as well as the future of space exploration, and, as he puts it, “the thrill of it all.”
The presentation is part of the Las Cruces Space Festival’s Making Contact event, an all-day showcase of space-related activities and opportunities at the Las Cruces Convention Center, 680 E. University Ave., on Thursday, April 11. Rice is scheduled to speak at 6 p.m., with other activities taking place throughout the day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The event is open to the public, and the Las Cruces Space Festival website describes it as a day of resume building opportunities, recruitment for internships, a Q&A with industry leaders, college course guidance, talks by NMSU graduates working in the space industry and more. Rice said any science background can lend itself to a career in space, and now is the time to pursue it.
“We’re in a unique moment of history,” he said. “We’ll never do these things for the first time again.”
Avra Elliott may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.