Light Years: Tell us about how you came to NASA.
San Martin: I was born in Patagonia, in the south (of Argentina).
I grew up during the Apollo era, and I grew up with ... an inclination to everything that was engineering. My father was a civil engineer, that maybe was part of it ... a lot of people at JPL were the same way. I wanted to do engineering.
Then I became conscious of the Apollo program, and when I was 10 years old saw men walk on the moon, and that caught my attention. But really what I feel was the mission where I decided "this is what I want to do" was the Viking mission, in the '70s. It was the first lander, and I found out by just, by, you know, by coincidence. It was difficult to find out about these things. It was several years before it launched and I immediately became interested.
I got like ... people did, on August 5, and watched (Curiosity) landing. I tried to do that (with Viking), except I found myself in Argentina, in the Patagonia, in my family's farm, listening on shortwave radio to the BBC where they were telling the story. And it went off the air because the program ended! Then I had to find out the next day. I went to the town and bought the newspaper and saw the picture, that Viking landed. And I said, this is it, this is what I want to do in my life.
So, well, it started at a very early age, and I found out about JPL through Viking, so I had a destination. I knew it was in Pasadena, California, but I don't think I could point to where California was on a map, just that it was somewhere up there in the United States. That's when I decided that the best way to do that, and my father encouraged me, was to go to university in the U.S., and through that ... be able to figure out how to do the stuff I wanted to do.
Light Years: Have you modeled how to take humans to Mars?
San Martin: No, I haven't worked on the human side. I had some colleagues who had been doing some work on that, so I'm not an expert on the subject. The only thing I know from talking to them and reading their papers is that when we bring humans to Mars, it's going to be very different from how we do it (with rovers) right now. We don't know how to land the amount of weight. The amount of equipment that you need to bring with astronauts, with humans, would be like 40 Curiosities. It would be like 40 tons. And you cannot launch 40 rockets, because obviously a human needs all of that at once. So we don't have the technology to do it ... but NASA is starting the process of learning how to do that.
Light Years: Will it happen in your lifetime?
San Martin: Well, I would like to believe so. But you know, I doubt it, to be totally honest. I mean, I think it's a matter of priorities: national priorities and world priorities, because I think that it will have to probably be an international endeavor, no single country can do it. But we are going in that direction, so maybe one day it will become a priority. And the moment it becomes a priority and we get the right funding, then it can be done.
Light Years: Do you think private spaceflight might influence whether we send humanity to Mars?
San Martin: I don't know. I think that ... what they are doing right now, which is to build spacecraft that will be able to take humans and cargo to the space station, that that's one set of problems that I think they can succeed, doing that.
To be honest, in the past, the spacecraft that NASA sent to the moon was built by private enterprise, too, you know ... so I would imagine if it's private space, it'd have to be a business model ... I'm not an expert on that, so I wouldn't be able to comment.
Definitely private space for low-Earth orbit, what they are doing right now, I mean it seems like a valuable thing to me. They're showing a lot of success so far, SpaceX.
Light Years: Has NASA started planning for another Mars rover, in a few years?
San Martin: NASA's re-evaluating what's next as far as Mars robotic missions. They're doing a study for what they're going to do in 2018 and 2020 ... obviously it could be another Curiosity-type rover, (and) landing, but we have other priorities, too, like putting orbiters (there). Some of the infrastructure of Mars that was so valuable to us, that provided images to choose the landing site, for example, those spacecraft, and that provide the relay of the data during landing and after landing, that's getting old, that infrastructure.
So that needs to also be replaced, so there's a competition for dollars between replacing the stuff we have there in orbit, with sending another rover to the surface of Mars. So they're working on that and there are studies going on as we speak.
Light Years: Is there any science on Mars that you're looking forward to, in particular?
San Martin: I'm looking forward to seeing what Curiosity is going to do. We have this tremendous asset on Mars, with the capability that is a quantum jump relative to the previous ones. Now we can go after organics, to find organics, and we know that it has a very long life, because it has nuclear energy, so we're just looking forward to when the rover goes to Mount Sharp, where the science is, and starts doing exploration there. And hopefully discover great things.