Dr. Joy Crisp of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory devotes her time working to unearth answers about Mars' geology. Tucked away in her prefab trailer office in the middle of the JPL campus, she enables the efforts of the team of scientists whose instruments will be onboard two rovers destined to land on Mars in 2004. These twin robots, part of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, will search for clues about water's past on Mars, and attempt to answer how the rocks and soils around their respective landing sites formed.
Crisp plays many roles in the mission, but principal among them is to represent the interests of the science team to the engineering teams and to report to NASA headquarters about the mission's ability to meet its scientific objectives. The job requires superior scientific breadth, diplomacy and judgment.
"What I try do," Crisp said, "is to make sure that the science return of the mission is as good as it can be."
To keep all-important channels of communication open, she keeps a glass jar of candy sitting just by her opened office door.
"I like interacting with people. The candy jar is a good way to get people who are passing by to pop their head in here and talk a bit about what's going on, while they dip their hand in to get some candy. It helps break up the workday. Plus, if I need to talk to someone but can't find them, usually the candy jar will lure them in."
She works well beyond 40 hours a week, often staying in her office long past dark. Her computer has a sticker paying tribute to the benefits of coffee. A miniature Mars Sojourner rover sits on top of her monitor. Above her computer hangs a framed artist's conception of the solar system's largest canyon, Mars' Valles Marineris.
Her desk is a portrait in multitasking, scattered with a wide variety of mission and science planning paperwork. A tall bookcase is filled with geology and other scientific books. Crisp and her husband, also a planetary scientist working at JPL, sometimes break their routine of talking shop during their commute and listen to books on tape.
Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Crisp received her bachelor's degree in geology from Carleton College in Minnesota. When she entered Carleton, she was not sure in which field of study she wanted to major, but enrolled in many math courses. During her second year she wondered what she would do with a math background. She couldn't envision herself as a math teacher. Almost as a last resort, she took a course in geology. She began taking more geology courses while still pursuing math, then eventually dropped the math emphasis and focused on geology.
Before beginning her work as a scientist at JPL, she received her master's degree and her Ph.D. in geology from Princeton University in 1984. After graduation, she was appointed as a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of California Los Angeles for more than two years. There, she conducted experiments subjecting rocks from the Canary Islands to high pressures and temperatures, testing the reactions of the rocks at conditions like those experienced beneath volcanoes.
What about geology excites her? "Studying rocks and pulling out clues as to how they were formed," she said. Crisp is also inspired by discoveries made by other scientists. "When I learn about a scientist piecing together geologic clues to find out how something was formed, I'll stop and say to myself, 'Wow. That's really exciting, the way they figured that out.'"
Crisp's love of geology, particularly volcanic geology, is her driving force. "Volcanic eruptions are fascinating phenomena, and I really enjoy collecting rocks that were once liquid magma and trying to figure out how they erupted and the conditions in which they formed."
How did Mars evolve? The history of water and volcanism on Mars are closely intertwined. What is the history of water there? Was there ever life on Mars? Those are the questions that drive Crisp and her colleagues to plow through the challenges, long nights and unforgiving mission schedules that characterize spacecraft explorations of Mars.
"Some of the questions about Mars that we are trying to answer are: What were the environmental conditions like when the rocks formed? We are especially interested in the possibility if water existed or still does exist on Mars. Was there cold liquid water or hydrothermal fluids like those seen at Yellowstone National Park involved? Was water only there for brief flooding episodes? Mars has lots of volcanic rocks, which ties into my interest in volcanoes, and these may hold clues to some of these questions."
One method used by field geologists to examine minerals is to cut open rocks and study the fresh, unweathered surfaces inside. Both Mars Exploration Rovers will be equipped with the compact equivalent of a geologist's hammer called a rock abrasion tool -- a diamond-studded rock cutter that will grind a hole approximately the size of a golf ball into a rock on Mars. This multiple-hour-long process will provide Crisp's team with freshly exposed rock surfaces to study with the scientific instruments on board.
Crisp has traversed the ridges of Earth volcanoes such as Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Mount Etna in Sicily and Mount Saint Helens in the Pacific Northwest. Unable to personally hike the flanks of Martian volcanoes, Crisp will experience the geology of Mars through the senses of robotic emissaries - the Mars Exploration Rovers.