CELS Alum Wins Distinguished Achievement Award for work on Mars missions

October, 2015

When Dr. John A. Grant began working towards his graduate degree in Geology at the University of Rhode Island in 1982, he did not know his studies would involve exploring the surface of Mars. Within a few months of his arrival at the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, however, he was working with faculty from the Department of Geosciences to map Mars with data captured from NASA’s Viking Spacecraft.

John-GrantGrant remembers viewing an image of Mars from the Viking Spacecraft while standing in his advisor’s URI office. “I thought, wow, that is so cool,” recalls Grant. Shortly thereafter, mapping Mars became part of his master’s thesis. That graduate research at URI eventually led Grant to a position at NASA and on to his current career at the Smithsonian Institution. “URI was really pivotal,” Grant observes, as he reflects on his career in planetary geology.

Now, as a Senior Geologist at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Grant is at the forefront of his field due to his leadership on the Mars Exploration Rover missions. 

Grant is being honored for his work with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Rhode Island on October 17th.

“I was thrilled and very excited,” says Grant, describing how he felt when he learned he was nominated for the Distinguished Achievement Award from URI. The award is intended for alumni and friends of URI who have brought distinction to themselves and the University through their professional achievements, outstanding leadership, and community service.

Grant’s professional achievements are numerous. As a result of his work at the Smithsonian, Grant has been involved in four different Mars missions. He co-chaired a team tasked with selecting the landing sites of the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers, and, currently, he co-leads the process to select the landing site for the Mars 2020 mission.

“The landing site is incredibly important,” explains Grant. While landing the rover in a way that keeps all of its sensitive equipment intact is essential, the location of the landing may be equally as important to the mission. Grant uses the analogy that on Earth a scientist studying tropical biology would not choose to set up their research station in Saudi Arabia. The same goes for Mars. As Grant describes, “If you go and land safely and don’t land in the right place, then you don’t get science that meets mission objectives.”

Grant advises students interested in the sciences to “buckle down and take a lot of science and math because it really does open doors for you.” Grant adds that students should not be discouraged if they have trouble finding a subject they feel passionate about. “Oftentimes it’s because you’re not asking the right questions or looking in the right places. Just be persistent,” insists Grant. That method certainly worked for Grant, who discovered planetary geology by keeping his eyes open during his first few months at URI.