Alum discusses her work with space exploration

By DRAKE FOREMAN | February 28, 2019

Patricia Ann Straat, Class of 1964, discussed her newly-released memoir, To Mars With Love, on Monday. The book is an account of her career in space exploration sciences. 

Straat worked as a co-experimenter on the Viking Labeled Release experiment (LR), which was one of three life-detection experiments sent to Mars on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) 1976 Viking Mission.

The results of the experiment remain controversial, with some believing that the experiment suggests that there is life on Mars, while others disagree. Straat noted that although this controversy is highly publicized, the story of the hard work it took to send space probes to Mars had never been told. In her book, she aims bring light to the behind-the-scenes work that went into the mission.

“The story offers a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to make an experiment fly,” she said.

Straat said that her journey began when she was hired in 1970 to work with Gilbert V. Levin on the LR experiment. At the time she was hired, Straat was an assistant professor at the Department of Radiological Sciences at Hopkins, working on molecular and enzyme systems. She recollected that she had no idea that she would ever work in the space industry.

“When I started on this career path, the only thing I knew about Mars was that it was the fourth planet out,” Straat said. “My colleagues thought it was a suicidal career move, but it sure sounded like fun.”

Straat explained that at the time, Mars was known to be uninhabitable, with temperatures rarely above freezing, no water, the surface bombarded with radiation and atmospheric pressure near vacuum. However, there were evidences from the orbital images that water had been around at one time, which gave her team hope that perhaps a long time ago life had been present on the planet.

According to Straat, the laboratory experimental setup to detect life on Mars was simple. Organic compounds labeled with radioactive carbon would be added to a soil sample. If the radioactive sample was consumed by microorganisms, there would be an emission of radioactive gas — usually carbon dioxide. To test if this was really caused by microorganisms, a duplicate sample would be heat sterilized, which should eliminate the gas emission.

Straat noted that although the laboratory experiment was simple, turning the experiment into a flight experiment was anything but trivial.

“It took six years to design and build. It was fraught with problems every step of the way. Everything that could possibly go wrong did,” she said. “It took a huge team of engineers and scientists, me included, working tirelessly day and night to achieve a goal that really seemed impossible at time.”

Straat recounted how excited her team was when the experiment successfully landed on Mars.

“For an instant, nobody moved. Then the realizations struck that yes, we had successfully landed our experiment on the surface of Mars. The cheers that went up in the biology team conference room were echoed from all the other teams throughout the entire complex. We were all in high spirits,” she said.

Ten days after the landing, the labeled release experiment was under way. The instrument functioned properly and had returned a positive result which was obliterated by heat sterilization.

Straat and other scientists believed the evidence strongly favored biology; however, others disagreed, attributing the result to an exotic chemical.

“The evidences [pro] and con are provided at the end of the book, but I leave it to you to read about it and decide for yourself. Bear in mind that many have tried to replicate the results, non-biologically, and nobody has succeeded. If the LR really did detect life, that would be perhaps the most astonishing finding ever,” she said.

Straat expressed her disappointment that no further life detection tasks have been set to follow up on the LR results but had high hopes for the future.

“Hopefully there will be mission to try again. What I have learned from Mars and discoveries that I read about elsewhere in the universe, is expect the unexpected,” she said.

Straat explained that her book is not entirely about science but includes fun anecdotes, memorabilia and humorous stories that happened along the way. Among these stories are her experiences in the equestrian and beachside communities of Los Angeles and Maryland.

“It’s a complex story, but the book is designed to be an easy read — informative but light and fun,” she said.

Michelle Niu, a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering, thought that the book talk was thought-provoking and informative.

“I am personally not for exploration on Mars, I think there are other things that we should look into further, such as preserving our own planet, but I thought her talk in general was very interesting, I think what she’s done is very exciting,” she said.

Cara Whitehead, Hopkins Arts & Sciences Class of 1984, also enjoyed the book talk and thought it was very empowering.

“It was very empowering to see a women who was at such a high level in the ‘70s, especially at that time and age,” she said.

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