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John Connolly  –  human space exploration engineer
Click for larger image " We will find life on Mars one day – and it will be us."
How were you motivated to choose your particular field?
  I was nine when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon, and even by then I loved everything that had to do with space. My uncle knew someone down at NASA, and beginning when I was about six I would receive a big box of pictures and press releases in the mail each year – it was probably just something this guy was going to throw out, but instead he packed all this stuff, this NASA stuff, into a box and sent it to me when it got full. I had no idea what most of it was, but I did know that it was all about the future, and about making reality out of what most people just dream about.

The other event I remember that turned me on to "rocket science" was the first Estes catalog I ever saw. This was also in 1969, and I couldn't believe that toys could be so cool – you could build an actual rocket and FLY it – fire and smoke and everything, just like the big ones! I still build model rockets today, but like most things as you grow up, my model rockets have gotten bigger and more complex.

I was a good student in school – math and science came real easy to me. So I decided to study engineering at Penn State and the University of Colorado. One day, sure enough, NASA called and asked me if I wanted to work on human lunar and Mars missions. Now I'm part of the Exploration Office at the Johnson Space Center, and every so often folks like Buzz Aldrin poke their head into our office, sit down, and want to see what we're working on. All of this taught me that anything you can dream, you can do. And that dreams do come true.

  Click for larger image
What can you share about your creative process?
    To me the creative process is all about having new ideas and figuring out how to use these new ideas. I feel pretty lucky because new ideas pop into my head all of the time. I try not to let myself get caught into thinking about the "usual" way of doing things, but to let my mind wander out towards other, unique ways to accomplish the same goal. An example, in the space business, is how we might bring a spacecraft to Mars. The goal is to land the spacecraft without damaging it, and to do this we usually use parachutes and rocket engines. But there are other ways to land a spacecraft without damaging it, like using airbags the way we did for the Mars Pathfinder mission – a new and creative idea that accomplished its goal in a new way.

When I think of a new idea, I first try to figure out how it fits in the "big picture". No problem exists simply by itself – everything is part of a bigger "system", which just means that things depends on other things to work. So when I want to be creative, I imagine a problem as a series of pieces that are all connected together, like the gears in a watch. If you change one piece, you need to imagine how it changes all the other pieces. The airbag that was used to land Pathfinder, for example, made us look at a totally new shape and design of spacecraft.

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  First of all, this WILL happen, the only question is WHEN? I think that humans will occupy Mars in much the same way that they settled many parts of the Earth – first starting off in small groups, exploring the planet, looking for resources and understanding how to survive there. This is the part that NASA is good at, and it's a lot like the stories of Lewis and Clark exploring the American west.

Once you have an understanding of Mars and how to survive there, you can start bringing people who want to build a permanent outpost, and stay there for a long time. These people are different from current astronauts, because they are most concerned with, well, building a city! So you need people like carpenters and plumbers and architects and heavy equipment operators to build the infrastructure. Then you need farmers, doctors, vets, and lots of good fix-it people to keep the place going.

One of the important things we'll need to learn is how to "live off the land" – that is, how to use the natural resources of Mars (like the soil and atmosphere) to make useful products (like oxygen or building materials), grow food, and create energy. The more we live off the land on Mars, the less we'll have to depend on Earth for any supplies. Eventually, the people who live on Mars should be able to make everything they need to survive and prosper.

We will find life on Mars one day – and it will be us.

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