Episode 17: Dr. Pascal Lee talks about preparing for the exploration of Mars & its moons

Dr. Pascal Lee // Aug 2, 2016

Dr. Pascal Lee is not the first Renaissance man to be interview on STEM-Talk, but his impressive biography merits that moniker.

“An artist, helicopter pilot, polar researcher, planetary scientist, and a pioneer in thinking about possible human futures in space,” as described by IHMC Director Ken Ford, Lee has an impressive list of accomplishments to his name.

He is co-founder and chairman of the Mars Institute, director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center, and senior planetary scientist at the SETI Institute.

Born in Hong Kong, he was sent to boarding school in Paris as a child, and later graduated from the University of Paris with a degree in geology and geophysics. During his year of civil service after college, he lived with 31 other men in Antarctica—a formative experience that gave him a thirst for field work and hands-on exploration. As Lee himself says in this interview, “Forever in my life there will be before and after Antarctica.”

Lee went on to study astronomy and space science at Cornell University, where he was also Carl Sagan’s teacher’s assistant. He then did a post-doc at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, where he has been ever since.

He continues to search for “new life” in the universe, with a particular interest in preparing for future exploration of Mars. This summer marks Lee’s twentieth summer field trip on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited earth with geological evidence similar to what Lee suspects would be found on Mars.

Lee is also the author of a children’s book, called Mission: Mars, about what it would take for humans to travel to the planet. He is also currently working on a book for adults addressing similar questions.

Several of Lee’s lectures are available on YouTube, or at his page on the SETI website: His personal web site is

In this episode, STEM-Talk Host Dawn Kernagis and IHMC senior research scientist Tom Jones, also a veteran NASA astronaut, interview Lee.

00:49: Ken Ford describes Lee’s accomplishments, adding, “Pascal and I share a passion for the moons of Mars—especially Phobos.”

2:10: Ford reads a 5-star iTunes review from “podcast file”: “The STEM-Talk podcast is a must listen. I appreciate how the format of a podcast stays focused and on topic. It is packed with outstanding content that lives up to its name. I truly found useful information and perspectives that impacts how I understand and see the world.”

3:57: Lee describes his upbringing in a Hong Kong that was booming. His father was ethnically Chinese, and his mother was French. As a child, he was sent to boarding school in France—without yet knowing how to speak French. “I started a new life at age eight. I stayed there for fifteen years.”

5:10: He always loved space travel. “I thought that was really inspiring and exciting. It wasn’t just the travel itself. [It was also the fact that there was] more to the universe than what we had on earth. Mars came into the picture a little later, as a teenager. That’s when I got serious about becoming a scientist.”

6:05: Carl Sagan’s book Cosmic Connection “really changed my life at the time…. From that day on, I decided that the planetary sciences were what I wanted to do. The rest was easy because once you have a goal and a focus, it makes a lot of decisions for you.”

6:38: Lee studied science and physics at the University of Paris. He spent his obligatory year of national service in Antarctica.

7:30: “On my way South [to Antarctica], I posted a letter to one graduate school—where Carl Sagan taught. In the middle of winter, I get this Telex from Cornell that I’d gotten in.”

8:28: Lee says his 402 days at a station in Antarctica “was an other-worldly experience. We were 31 people. All men. Forever in my life there will be before and after Antarctica.”

9:48: He went on his first helicopter ride off the coast of Antarctica. Flying through a glacier “was like flying through downtown Manhattan, with ice cliffs on either side.”

10:48: “Helicopters are like the lunar modules of the earth: take you exactly where you want to go.” In Lee’s case, that was an iceberg in the middle of the sea.

11:22: Lee was Carl Sagan’s last TA. After a few snowy winters in Ithaca, Lee was done with cold weather and headed to California. He had a post-doc at NASA Ames and has been there ever since.

12:30: Lee continues to describe his time in Antarctica. “I was expecting it to be trying. In the end, I took more books than I could read. I was so busy doing my work, exploring with colleagues and friends. I can’t say I experienced boredom one minute.”

13:25: He talks about being in a “resource-poor” environment. “You can’t go to a store. All the sudden, small things take on a life of their own. Questions like ‘Who took my pen?’ come up. Tensions arise.”

15:00: Lee was an “ambassador” of the cliques that inevitably formed. “When team leadership is not strongly exercised, then the group splits up into smaller factions. This happens on ships and submarines. That was my experience.”

17:15: He recalls falling into frozen sea ice, which was three-four feet thick when he started walking on it. “Beneath is an abyss of dark, cold, gloomy water. At some point the ice got darker (with the current). It was thinner, and I fell through the ice. I was lucky to be able to swim back to shore and threw one foot onto the ice; my friends came and rescued me.”

18:52: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

19:23: Lee’s driving motivation in science is the search for new life. “I got particularly interested in places you could one day go to: such as the moon, asteroids, Mars.” He did his Ph.D. thesis on asteroids.

21:10: For Lee’s post-doc, he proposed studying a place on earth as Mars-like as possible. “This was a way to go back to the polar regions,” he said.

22:00: He describes Devon Island, where he went for field work, as a “polar desert…. It was cold, dry, barren, dusty, windy—similar to Mars.”

25:25: “We knew from our first summer on Devon Island, that this is a place where we would have to go back, probably for many more years.”

25:40: This summer marks Lee’s twentieth consecutive field trip to Devon Island. “We go to this place for two reasons: to learn about it, so that we can interpret the Martian landscape better; the other reason is that we are using the place as a set where you can test equipment: hardware, space suits, rovers, drills that astronauts or robots could deploy on Mars; airplanes or drones…. It’s an amazing testing ground.”

27:10: Devon Island is also a great place to test operational procedures for a future Mars exploration, in figuring out issues such as how many people should go out on an exploration and how many of them should actually explore at once (versus protect safety.) “Unless you understand exactly what it takes field exploration, you don’t have good requirements for what you want to design and take to Mars.

29:15: Mars has finger-shaped valleys known as small-valley networks. They formed in a thick, warm atmosphere, which became known as “the faint early sun paradox.”

31:10: When they formed, the sun was about 25 percent dimmer than it is today. “The sun was a young star. It was still turning on, and at the time, the valley networks were forming.”

32:54: Lee saw similar things on the valley networks of Devon Island, which were formed by melting ice sheets.

35:40: The two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, are important to study because they are in Mars’ orbit. “Going to Mars’ orbit is a lot easier than going to the surface of Mars itself. You don’t have to re-invent the space suit, for example. It can be done much sooner. It would allow ball to get rolling in Mars exploration.”

38:10: There are several theories about how Mars’ moons developed: that they are giant asteroids; captured comets; or bits and pieces of Mars blasted out into space.

39:40: One of the more substantiated ideas, Lee says, is that they are captured comets.

41:44: The near-Earth Asteroid known as 3552 Don Quixote is emitting CO2. It is the largest D-type asteroid (very dark and red) in the inner solar system. Lee says this is evidence that it’s likely a captured, dying comet.

43:37: Phobos and Deimos are similar to 3552 Don Quixote. “They might be ice-rich bodies captured early in history. There are no signs of ice, but who knows what is happening 100 meters down: there could be lumps of ice. This could be a game-changer for getting humans to Mars…. If we had ready access to ice in Mars’ orbit. You can use it as rocket fuel to break down hydrogen and nitrogen in the water.”

44:55: The Russians looked for Phobos and Deimos in 1988; in their second probe, they made it to Mars’ orbit, but an electronics failure blunted the mission.

45:50: In 2011, the Russians again attempted to go to Phobos. They had a launch problem, causing them to fall back into Pacific Ocean off coast of Chile. They don’t have the finances to repeat such a mission.

46:48: However, the Russians are part of the European Phobos return mission. They conducted a detailed feasibility study this summer.

47:48: The Japanese space agency is pursuing a sample return mission called MMX (Mars Moon Exploration), with a goal of launching in 2022, and bringing samples back to earth in 2025.

48:00: Meanwhile, NASA had three missions to Phobos proposed, but they didn’t select any of them.

50:36: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

51:20: Johnson Space Center and others are looking at human missions to Phobos; a lot of questions are coming up: “I think what we’re seeing is a pretty significant robotic precursor mission that NASA will have to put together.”

52:28: NASA has announced it’s sending a new Rover to collect samples on Mars; in 2022, NASA would launch a Mars communications orbiter.

53:22: Gravity on Phobos is 1,700 times less than the gravity on earth. It’s still not the same as zero gravity.

56:15: Water could be in form of ice; or minerals that are hydrated. Many are carbon-rich and clay-rich. Other resources would be organics.

57:17: These places have loose regolith (soil): that means you could move materials around easily; and shelter yourself from space radiation.

59:10: The regolith on Phobos is “the Library of Alexandria” of life on Mars. The surface of Mars is very oxidizing; aggressive chemicals.

1:00:33: “The irony is that the best record of early life on Mars may be on Phobos.”

1:01:03: Lee says asteroid mining will be hard to pursue, especially without a high enough return on the investment.

1:02:39: “Going to Mars is the mother of all camping trips. But it’s a lot more complicated; and it will never be completely safe. But you need to be able to put the odds on your side to survive the effort.”

1:04:10: “I see NASA being able to do it [go to Mars.] But it will take a certain type of leadership. We’re going to need six or seven rockets before putting a human on Mars.”

1:05:15: Lee discredits certain initiatives aiming to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars, namely one called Mars One, a Netherlands-based not-for-profit foundation: “These undertakings have no technical credibility or underpinning,” he said.

1:06:40: “I think we need a space suit that is significantly lighter; we have one that weighs 300 pounds on earth. That suit, if you took it to the Moon, would have a felt weight on the moon of about 50 pounds. If you take that same suit to Mars, it would have a felt weight of 125 pounds. That is too heavy for a field worker.”

1:12:25: “It’s important that we go back to nuclear thermal rockets, which were developed in the 1960s. Nuclear thermal propulsion is a mature idea that is being tested in the desert. It was tested by Nixon in 1960s, but it’s being revived in a quiet way now. The key way to making a human mission to Mars happen is to cut down on the travel time to Mars.”

1:14:42: “The beauty of a NTR is that the only gas emitted is hydrogen. It could cut the travel time to Mars down to just a few months.”

1:15:50: “There’s a way to do safe nuclear in space. For our future on Mars, and space exploration in general, we have to go nuclear. It’s the way stars are powered, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that in space ourselves.”

1:16:58: Lee describes his reason for writing his children’s book, Mission: Mars. “When I was the age of the kids that this book targets, people were walking on the moon. It was clear that the next step would be to go to Mars. There was no book on that for Mars. That was a big incentive for me to write the children’s book.”

1:19:44: Asked what other books he recommends, Lee cites Tom Jones’ memoir Sky Walking, about the ins and outs of being an astronaut; and Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration, by Jack Sester.

1:21:30: Lee is currently working on another book (for adults) dubbed From Earth to Mars, about the necessary steps in getting us to Mars.

1:22:06: Dawn and Ken wrap up.

1:23:17: Dawn and Ken sign off.