Dr. Roedolph Opperman gave the Living Education Forum on March 2—64 days before the Living Education graduation, according to the students’ countdown. Dr. Opperman works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a systems engineer and is part of the team that landed the Mars rover Perseverance on February 18. For 90 days following the landing, Dr. Opperman’s team worked by clocks adjusted to “Mars time,” since Martian days are 40 minutes longer than Earth days.
“Our job is to try to break the spacecraft—well, not really. It’s way too expensive for that,” he said jokingly. Dr. Opperman is a Fault Protection Specialist, and his team was responsible for finding out “what could potentially go wrong.” Whether software glitches or cable breaks, they had trialed the rover and programmed the computers to detect problems and self-correct. Here on Earth, the engineers can use an identical rover to simulate Perseverance and gauge its performance before sending commands to the Mars rover.
The Challenge of Getting to Mars
One key challenge of the mission was landing the rover safely. NASA engineers call EDL—Entry, Descent, and Landing—the “seven minutes of terror.” Dr. Opperman explained that the vehicle must enter, descend, and land on its own. On average, it takes about ten minutes for a message from Perseverance to reach the earth—so for that length of time the engineers had no idea if the vehicle had landed or crashed.
When the spacecraft carrying Perseverance reached Mars, friction caused heat on the spacecraft to reach 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit; a heat shield protected the spacecraft and its precious cargo as it hurtled through the planet’s atmosphere. Then, a supersonic parachute 70 feet in diameter—able to withstand more than 65,000 pounds of force—deployed and slowed the spacecraft’s descent. The heat shield was dropped and the spacecraft secured a radar lock on the ground. As the craft separated from its parachute, rockets were used to divert it away from the parachute and slow its descent even more. At 65 feet above the surface, cables lowered Perseverance from the hovering craft to the ground in what is called a "sky crane" maneuver. Every step of EDL had to occur autonomously and in perfect coordination.
“I’ve been working on this project for three years—some have been working on it for eight years or more. For some people, this is what life is all about,” Dr. Opperman commented. One objective of the mission was to find out if there was ever ancient life on Mars. For this purpose, the rover was equipped with different tools, like ground-penetrating radar, UV and X-ray spectrometers, a laser, several cameras, and a drill for taking soil samples.
Another objective was to test MOXIE, a system that can convert carbon dioxide from the Mars atmosphere into oxygen for humans to breathe. NASA aims to land humans on Mars by the 2030s, and private companies like SpaceX are also racing to establish colonies on the planet.
But, as Dr. Opperman pointed out, “Humans aren’t designed for space.” The weightlessness of space—without the gravity earth exerts on a body—causes bones to demineralize and muscles to atrophy without at least 90 minutes of daily exercise. Also, without Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, space radiation poses the major threat to human exploration of space.
“Let’s take a step back,” Dr. Opperman said. We’d gotten a glimpse of how hard it is just to get a rover to another planet in our solar system. That took thousands of people thousands of days to achieve, while singlehandedly “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). He created everything we see and don’t see—like theorized dark matter, the entire spectrum of light, and the spiritual realm.
Even though the Earth is as a speck of dust in the vast universe, Dr. Opperman reminded the students that it will be where “the headquarters of the universe, New Jerusalem, is established.” He quoted Paul, who stated, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Dr. Opperman said, “The Mars rover is so minute compared to what God can create.… As humans, we have this desire to explore—but as spirit beings, we can be on the other side of the galaxy, and not just build rovers but build planets.”
When asked what his plans were for after the Mars rover project, Dr. Opperman replied, “Get some sleep. I have a toddler—I’m not really on Mars time.”