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Photo of Nathalie Cabrol
   Nathalie Cabrol

What advice can you offer to young scientists or engineers?

Never give up your dreams and work hard for them because the reward is a life of fulfilled passion.

What are your personal goals for the future?

I'd like in few years from now design a mission to Mars and bring it to completion. There are so many exciting places to be explored there that we need to find ways to reach them. If it is possible in my lifetime, I'd like to go to Mars and explore in person some of the regions that I have been studying, like Gusev. It would be wonderful to set foot on Mars and see the sun set and rise on the horizon of another planet.

What are your dreams for the future of exploration?

I hope that we will find life somewhere else than Earth. It would be such an incredible feeling to know that we are sharing the vast expands of the universe with others, whether they are microorganisms or technologically advanced civilization. One of my dreams is also that soon humans will be leaving on other planets of our solar system (e.g., Mars and the Moon) and that one day not too far from now, a little human being will be born outside planet Earth. A new Era will begin then.

What portion of this mission interests you the most?

So far I could not find one part of that mission that does not fascinate me. Of course, the science part is the one I am the closest too but I also enjoy listening to the engineers, try to understand their concerns and all the talent they are deploying to make sure we are having a mission in very interesting science sites. They are remarkable.

What is the most fascinating thing about your mission?

For the first time with MER we have a real chance to search for traces of past water activity and to understand better the habitability potential of Mars. We also have the mobility to test exciting hypotheses at the landing sites.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

Not to get to overexcited!

What is unique about your job?

What is unique about it is that I would never use the word "job" or "work" about it. To me, because I spend so much time analyzing Mars mission images, every morning I have the feeling that I am going to Mars. Every day is a renewed expectation. This is really what is is unique about.

What’s the most extraordinary experience you've had so far on this mission?

There have been two high points so far: (1) the phone call from NASA HQ to let me know that I was selected in the Athena science team; (2) the recommendation of Gusev crater as the site for MER A by the scientific community and the Athena science team. Of course, we still need to wait until the engineers have run all the safety simulations and that our adminsitrator Ed Weiler makes the final decision but this was a defining moment. I have been working for many years on this site with Edmond Grin and it gave us a sense of achievement.

When you were in elementary school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

As I said, I never wanted to do anything else. If I trust parents, this might be the first things I said...

When did you decide you wanted to be in the space industry and how did you go for it?

I always wanted to. The problem I faced was that at the time I was still in France and the Martian was not as developed as it is today. They were only very few positions. This situation had two major implications: there was no specific teaching about planetology so I went to geology, geomorphology, remote sensing classes and made sure to participate to international conferences so that I could see what was happening and make contact with planetary geologists; the second is that I could not expect to do my career in my country of birth. I left in 1994 for NASA Ames after meeting Christopher McKay in France. I was working on a site (Gusev crater) that he found interesting. I came at Ames with a 9-month French research grant...and the rest is history.

Why do you think Mars Exploration is important?

First, from its very first step on Earth, life has been exploring. This is why we are here today. This is why life has survived throughout all the crises. We have exploration in our genes as a mode of survival and diversification. But why Mars is important? I would say it is important for our past and our future because it is the closest to planet Earth in terms of geology, environment, and possibly, conditions for life. This "possibly" makes all the difference. Remember that we have the chance of living on a very dynamic planet but we pay a tough price for that. What I mean is that because Earth is active, rocks are recycled through plate tectonics very often. It means also that we have lost traces of our begining. The oldest rocks on Earth are 3.9 Ga old. They already show the indirect traces of the activity of life. Life was already there...When did it appear, how? We might never know on Earth but maybe our answer is somewhere on Mars. Why is that? To explain this, I often use the comparison with someone who would have lost very early his parents and would like to know more about them. The best thing to do is to go to the closest relatives that could be brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts, ask questions, take photos and search for family resemblances. This is why Mars is important, because it is the planet closest to Earth and did not experience as much recycling as the Earth. The oldest rocks are probably still there on Mars and the conditions at the beginning of the two planets were not too different. Our own Rosetta stone, this 4.2 Ga old rock might be waiting for us up there and who knows about life...That's for the past. As for the future, Mars is also the best candidate for the first human colony outside the Earth. To me, this is where this first baby born ourside the Earth will see the sunrise and it will be a wonderful vision.

What excites you about Mars or about space exploration?

I guess I responded in part by answering the previous question. We are explorers and our species will not be able to survive without exploring and spreading on other worlds. For 4 Ga years, species have been diversifying their habitats on Earth but our planet and its resources are not expandable to infinity. We will have to sail to other "space continents" soon as we always did before. The ships our a bit different and for the first time it will not be a land on Earth, but it will be a land none the less and a place for new beginnings.

Do you work on any other projects at your company?

Yes, I have several projects ongoing at the moment, one of them being the study of the highest lake on Earth on top of the Licancabur volcano (6017 m/20,056 ft) and another one being the development of robotic astrobiology with CMU.

Describe the human side of robotic exploration.

There is this very exciting time when you try to design robots, software, and technology that can do the work you would do if you could be on Mars. This is especially wonderful when you see these robots working and returning data. Now, there is also a frustrating part which has to deal with computing capabilities, time delays from one planet to the other. There is a lot of waiting for the data to come but in the end, we are so excited anyway by what could come that time flies! For now, robots are our surrogates in the field. One day, human will be there and will use the best computers of all to interpret these new environments: their brain.

Do you have any hobbies?

I practice lots of sports but swimming and free diving were my favorites before I met Edmond. He since introduced me to mountaineering. He is a great mountaineer and has many successful high ascents under his belt. Year after year, we hiked more and more mountains together, every time a bit higher. In november 2002, me, Edmond and our science team where on top of the Licancabur volcano (6017 m or 20,056 ft) to study the highest lake on Earth as an analo to martian paleolakes. That was a tremendous experience, mental, physical, and spiritual. I am not even talking about the view! I fell in love with mountains for many reasons, one of them is that mountains never lie and one cannot lie to a mountain. On their slopes, we are facing ourselves. They give lessons of courage and from time to time, lessons of modesty that we have to accept. The Licancabur expedition allowed us to combine these passions of science, swimming, diving, and mountaineering.

When I am not at NASA Ames or in the field, I love art, painting and sculpture. I read a lot, all sorts of literature. Books are open windows on people thoughts and minds, a way of understanding the diversity of cultures and civilizations of planet Earth. In a world of diversity, these keys are very important. Whether it is for work or not, we all meet people from various countries and background. Understand how they think, why they think this way, what is their history is fundamental for building up trust, collaborations and interactions. It is the key of understanding and tolerance

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

We create our own barriers and limitations. Keep dreaming as dreams do not have such barriers and never take no for an answer.

Nathalie Cabrol:
  Background Information
  Contributions to Mars Exploration
  Personal Reflections