Who knows? If she has her way, one of our former Castle Valley young women might be on the first trip to Mars in 2023. In the meantime, Kiri Wagstaff will be involved with other exciting activities here on Planet Earth while being employed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as a senior research technologist and a rover tactical activity planner.
On Wednesday, Aug. 21, Kiri took the controls of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity to maneuver it toward the base of “Solander Point,” where it will spend the Martian winter. The rover Opportunity has survived five Martian winters since it landed on Mars in January 2004. A northern slope would tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the winter sun, providing an important boost in available power.
Three months ago the mission began a trek of about 1.5 miles from an area where Opportunity had worked for nearly two years, on “Cape York,” to reach Solander Point for winter. The drives went well, according to the project’s team and they know they can be on that north-facing slope with a one-day drive. In the meantime they will have time to investigate the contact between the two geological units around the base of Solander Point.
Kiri’s role as a tactical activity planner is, as her title implies, to help with the tactical planning. The team meets each morning, decides which places to visit or which tests to perform that day and determines if they have enough solar power to accomplish the task. “I’m excited to be a part of the team,” she said, referring to the seven-person team with which she works each day.
Opportunity has been in service for nine years and is starting to show symptoms of aging, such as loss of motion in some joints, but it continues to accomplish groundbreaking exploration and science. An older rover, Spirit, ceased operations during its fourth Martian winter in 2010 when the rover got stuck in a sand dune and scientists were not able to “wake it up” after the Martian winter. The most recent rover, Curiosity, landed in the Gale Crater near Mount Sharp on Aug.5, 2012, and sends back amazing pictures and scientific information possibly suggesting that Mars once looked like Earth and supported life. This location was chosen after a five-year study because it looked like an area that would produce the most information.
In January 2010, Kiri participated in a simulated human mission to Mars at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville. She was part of a six-person crew who lived in a 30-foot habitat for two weeks, and as part of the MDRS Mission 89 crew she served as the crew geologist, information officer and journalist.
“Through the 14-day mission,” according to her mission summary report, “the international crew transitioned from an assortment of near strangers to an efficient, compatible, coherent team. They learned not only how to conduct operations in the remote setting but also how to live and work in the very cramped quarters of MDRS. Their research goals spanned a gamut of areas, and they discovered almost immediately that their diverse skills and backgrounds formed a complementary union. Crew 89 tackled a diverse collection of projects including astronomy, biology, geophysics, geology, image geolocation, engineering, and public outreach.”
To make the experience as realistic as possible, the crew followed protocol by suiting up in non-pressurized but cumbersome spacesuits for their exploration activities outside the habitat. The crew would go through an airlock, which is located at the front and back of the MDRS and they would also spend five minutes in the airlock for it to be “depressurized” on the way back in.
Recently, Kiri applied for a one-way trip to Mars, despite some resistance from her father, Dave. If selected, she will be part of the Mars One Foundation, an organization that will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2023. Foundation officials say a reliable surface habitat will be set up before the first crew lands, and more settlers and cargo will follow every two years. Kiri and her father recorded a one-minute video in Castle Valley using the Martian-looking red rocks and sand as a background as part of the application process. Even though there is no guarantee that she will return, there could be shuttles that will bring people back. There have been 100,000 applicants so far, but with Kiri’s credentials she is sure to finish among the top finalists.
Kiri, the daughter of Lois Oliver of Phoenix and Dave Wagstaff of Castle Valley, attended local schools since elementary school and graduated from Grand County High School with the class of 1993. She attended the University of Utah and Cornell University, where she earned a Ph.D in computer science. She has been with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the past 10 years during which time she also received an M.S. degree in geology from the University of Southern California.
ByBy Ron Drake