A Teen Might Pick The Landing Site For NASA's Next Mars Rover | KERA News

A Teen Might Pick The Landing Site For NASA's Next Mars Rover

Sep 4, 2016

NASA's next Mars rover mission doesn't launch until 2020, but the process of picking a landing site is already underway. Right now, one of the leading suggestions comes from a teenager who hasn't yet finished high school.

Alex Longo, of Raleigh, N.C., has been a fan of space exploration for almost as long as he can remember.

"My first experience with space exploration was in 2005," he says. "I was just 5 years old, and mom and dad had me watch a space shuttle launch."

Watching that shuttle launch was the start. Longo decided he not only wanted to go into space himself someday, he wanted to be the first person to walk on Mars.

He started following NASA missions on the agency's website, and in 2014 came across an announcement about the next rover mission to Mars.

"I saw that they were looking for abstracts from scientists to suggest landing sites," he says. "I decided, well, I'll write something up."

He'd written to NASA before. "Each time, they sent me cool space shuttle mission posters or patches," he says. "I'll have my very small say in this," he figured, "and maybe they'll send me some cool stuff."

But then he thought, maybe he should tell his mom what he was planning.

"He said, 'Hey, Mom, can I send this in to NASA?" Laura Longo remembers. "And I said, 'Well, let's take a look at it.' And I sat down, and it's this multi-page scientific document. And I said 'Oh honey, that's really cool,' thinking he's going to get some more swag — that's going to be great."

Her son's proposal was to land in the same place NASA's rover Spirit had landed in 2004, a place called Gusev Crater. Spirit found some intriguing potential signs that there might have once been life on Mars; Alex Longo thought Gusev was worth a second look.

NASA apparently agreed. Instead of swag, they sent Longo an email inviting him to attend the first landing site planning meeting.

"At first, I didn't believe it," he says. "I thought it was a dream or something. So I just got up, walked away, and a while later I came back and that email was still there. And I was like, 'Wow, I actually just got invited to go to a NASA conference!' How cool is that?"

The meeting was in a hotel near NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. His mom and dad drove him there. Longo was scheduled to speak in the last session of the conference.

"Honestly, I was a bit scared," he recalls. "Because there are 125 Ph.D.s and grad students in that room, and I probably am by far the least experienced or knowledgeable person there. And I'm giving a presentation to all these people."

"I was focused on breathing, so I wouldn't fall out of the chair," says his mom, who still beams when she recalls that day. "When he finished, the entire room burst into applause. Everybody recognized how special this was for this young person."

That was 2014, when Alex Longo was 14. He's now teamed up with some more experienced Mars scientists who also favor going back to Gusev Crater. Their proposal is one of eight semi-finalists. That number will be whittled down to four at a meeting next year.

Alex also wangled an invitation to a NASA-sponsored conference that will pick a landing site for the first human landing on Mars. He figured he had to go to that.

"Because if I really am going to be the first guy to go there, I want to have a say in where I am landing," he says.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You've heard this before. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. So in many ways, this year's election has become a question of character. The candidates themselves understand that.

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HILLARY CLINTON: I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me.

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DONALD TRUMP: Mr. Trump, you're not a nice person. I think I am a nice person. People that know me like me.

MARTIN: We're going to explore some of the character traits that push voters away in this election. For Clinton, it's the way she seems to protect her privacy at all costs.

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H. CLINTON: The server contains personal communications from my husband and me. And I believe I have met all of my responsibilities, and the server will remain private.

MARTIN: For Trump, it's how he seems to crave public attention and says anything to get it.

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TRUMP: They say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that - where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible.

MARTIN: We'll focus on Donald Trump elsewhere in the show but first, Hillary Clinton and the trust gap with the American people that even she admits she has to bridge.

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H. CLINTON: You can't just talk someone into trusting you. You've got to earn it.

MARTIN: Here she is on the campaign trail this summer in Chicago.

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H. CLINTON: So yes, I could say that the reason I sometimes sound careful with my words is not that I'm hiding something. It's just that I'm careful with my words.

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H. CLINTON: I believe what you say actually matters. I think that's true in life, and it's especially true if you're president. So I do think before I speak. And I could say that political opponents and conspiracy theorists have accused me of every crime in the book over the years. None of it's true - never has been. But accusations like that never really disappear once they're out there.

CHELSEA CLINTON: Growing up and really kind of watching my mom in the arena, I don't remember a time when she wasn't attacked.

MARTIN: Chelsea Clinton has spent a lifetime trying to understand why.

C. CLINTON: My earliest political memories really come from 1986 when my dad was running for re-election as governor of Arkansas. And he was running against a man named Frank White who had been governor of Arkansas before. And he spent much of the campaign, although he was running against my dad, attacking my mom.

And I remember this so vividly, I think, because one of his lines of attack was against her as a mother. You know, she must be a terrible mother because we see her working as a lawyer. She must spend all her time kind of in her office or in the courtroom. And it just all seemed kind of crazy to me because I was an only child. And so I thought kind of my opinion about my mom should matter a lot more than Frank White's opinion about my mom.

And so my entire life, there's been this cognitive dissonance between the public characterization of my mother and my lived experience with her as my mom.

MARTIN: The public characterization of Hillary Clinton that began back in Arkansas had a lot to do with what she wasn't. She wasn't a Southerner. She was from Illinois. She wasn't a stay at home mom. She was a partner at a law firm. She wasn't Hillary Clinton. She was Hillary Rodham. Here's an interview she did with Arkansas public television in 1979.

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UNIDENTIFIED HOST: Does it bother you that because you don't use your husband's name that people think you're too liberal? And, after all, this is not a state known for liberalism.

MARTIN: A 30-something-year-old Hillary Rodham essentially says too bad.

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H. CLINTON: Some people may think I'm, you know, too this or too that. But I think that's another one of the dangers about being in public life. One cannot live one's life based on what somebody else's image of you might be. All one can do is live the life that God gave you. And, you know, you just do the best you can. And if somebody likes you or doesn't like you, that's really, in many ways, something you have no control over.

MARTIN: That was Hillary Rodham in 1979 in Arkansas. Fast forward more than a decade. Her husband is running for president, and she is still uncomfortable with the public expectations of being a political wife.

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H. CLINTON: I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.

MARTIN: Being a politician's wife was difficult for her in general. But being Bill Clinton's wife came with added complications.

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STEVE KROFT: I'm Steve Kroft. And this is a special abbreviated edition of "60 Minutes." Tonight, Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, talk about their life, their marriage and the allegations that have all but stalled his presidential campaign.

MARTIN: Allegations of infidelity, which forced Hillary Clinton to both defend her husband and her marriage.

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H. CLINTON: You know, I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.

DAVID MARANISS: By the time they started to run for the presidency, Hillary Clinton had made her bargain.

MARTIN: This is journalist David Maraniss. He's covered the Clintons for decades.

MARANISS: She knew Bill Clinton's history, and she decided that what they could do together in terms of policy was far more important than his personal flaws. And because they were so closely tied together in their rise, she had to defend him.

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H. CLINTON: The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.

MARTIN: That was Hillary Clinton on NBC's "Today Show" in January of 1998, defending her husband after the allegations about Monica Lewinsky surfaced. But with that now-famous right-wing conspiracy remark, she was firing back at years of scandals that have loomed over the Clintons and complicated their political fortunes.

MARANISS: You know, with the Clintons, a lot of things are true and false at the same time.

MARTIN: Again, journalist David Maraniss.

MARANISS: It's part of the complexity of their place in American politics. And so whether it was an actual conspiracy or not, it is irrefutable that the right wing was more agitated by the Clintons and more prone to go after them in any way, whether something was accurate or not than any other Democratic politicians. And so by the time, you know, the Monica Lewinsky story broke and Hillary sort of rallied the troops and came to his defense and went on "The Today Show" and issued that statement and was really the strongest person in the White House during that crucial period when some - you know, many people were saying that Clinton would have to resign. It was Hillary that was actually the steel there.

MARTIN: Some Americans didn't trust Hillary Clinton to tell the truth because her husband didn't when it came to Monica Lewinsky. They also didn't trust her because she was fundamentally changing what it meant to be a first lady. Yes, she oversaw the Christmas decorations at the White House and hosted state dinners. But she also had a lot of power from the beginning, when her husband put her in charge of health care reform. Hillary Clinton was an important policy adviser.

MELANNE VERVEER: I think it can best be summed up by the phrase - who elected her?

MARTIN: This is Melanne Verveer. She was Hillary Clinton's chief of staff when she was first lady and when she oversaw the administration's push for health care reform in 1993. Verveer says there was a lot of pushback to that appointment, even inside the White House.

VERVEER: Who elected her to come in and have this kind of power over a significant part of the U.S. economy, at least in terms of what health care represented?

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MARTIN: It's been a never-ending cycle with Hillary Clinton over the years. She gets criticized because of her personality or professional ambition, then she gets defensive. Then she gets criticized for being defensive, and she pulls the drawbridge up even further. David Maraniss sees direct evidence of that with the scandal that's plagued her current presidential campaign, her decision to use a private email address and private server while secretary of state.

MARANISS: I see it as symptomatic of Hillary's protectiveness. And if there's a chance for her to not be exposed publicly in any way, she'll take it that direction.

MARTIN: Maraniss says that instinct has been a political liability for Clinton throughout her political career.

MARANISS: In many key points, it was Hillary who was the most protective and the least transparent.

MARTIN: How have these attacks - and especially the accusations of secrecy - how have these all stuck to Hillary Clinton in a way that they haven't stuck to Bill Clinton? And they seem to. They seem to adhere to her in a way that he shakes off.

MARANISS: There's a lot of reasons for that. One is sexism. I think that's undeniable - that as the strongest woman figure in modern American politics, she is susceptible to more criticism for things that males might not be criticized for.

Another aspect is that Bill Clinton is just purely - I mean this in a complimentary way to Hillary - but I've sometimes called Bill Clinton an authentic phony and Hillary Clinton a phony phony. In other words, Bill Clinton is better at presenting himself in these many different ways. He's a protean character who, when he comes into a room, can be whatever that room wants him to be. And Hillary is not as adaptable as that. And so she's less fluid in her political style. And that leads her open to more of these criticisms.

And so over the course of time, I think that that's built up this public perception of her. Now the question to me now is whether, now that she's on the verge of actually reaching this incredible position, whether that will liberate her from that protectiveness - whether, you know, she doesn't need Bill Clinton anymore.

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MARTIN: That was an excerpt from our special program, The Making of Clinton and Trump. You'll hear our story on Donald Trump elsewhere in the show. You can hear the special on many NPR member stations over the next month and on the NPR One app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.