On May 25, 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite transmitted a grainy image back to Earth. It showed two white dots – the Phoenix Mars lander and its parachute – descending against the backdrop of the planet’s vast Heimdal impact crater. Chris Lewicki, the Phoenix mission’s manager, hadn’t seen the lander since its launch on August 3, 2007, on board the Delta II rocket that carried it into space. The Phoenix landed 20km from the huge crater, kick-starting its search for microbial-friendly habitats on Mars.
For Nasa, this was the beginning of another successful mission, but to Lewicki, things began to feel repetitive. He had first become obsessed with space at the age of 11, when he saw images of Nasa’s Voyager mission, the space probe that captured images of the Solar System’s outer planets. He studied Aerospace Engineering at the University of Arizona and, in 1999, joined Nasa, where he rose through the ranks. In 2003, at the age of 29, he oversaw the landing of the Spirit and the Opportunity Mars Rovers.
Those missions were the fulfilment of his childhood dream. Now, with the Phoenix – his third mission to Mars – he began to feel restless. “A lot of my friends were working on the next big robot project, Curiosity,” he says. “But that felt like the easy thing to do.” So he started casting around for a new job. Continue Reading →