CAMBRIDGE – When the NASA rover Perseverance touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, MIT researcher Michael Hecht was among the project members celebrating back on Earth.
“It was quite a day,” Hecht recalled in a Zoom interview. “There were a lot of media interactions during the day and very little sleep the night before, the night after.”
Perseverance is “the culmination of so many years of work,” he said. “In some ways, it’s the culmination. In some ways, it’s the beginning. We’re getting better every time.”
Hecht, who is Jewish, is the principal investigator for a device aboard the rover: the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE.
The acronym stands for the classic soft drink invented in Lowell in the late 19th century.
“It really meant something to me to have a name that excited a sense of achievement and had a local character,” Hecht said, adding that the name of the drink “of course has been absorbed into the English language to mean something audacious, something plucky, suggesting success against the odds.”
“In fact,” he said, “no name could be more appropriate than MOXIE for it.”
MOXIE has an important contribution to Perseverance, creating oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – specifically, from the carbon dioxide that comprises 96 percent of the gas around the planet. Successfully doing so would represent progress toward the goal of someday sending astronauts to the Red Planet and be able to burn rockets to send them back in the not-too-distant future.
The Martian atmosphere has “almost no oxygen to speak of,” Hecht said. “There’s a little bit of trace oxygen. You need oxygen, for obvious reasons, if you’re going to send astronauts to Mars.”
Regarding expectations of when this might happen, Hecht estimates “15 years or so.”
He noted that there had also been a 15-year plan when he first got involved in the mid-1990s, and while plans to send humans to Mars by 2011 did not launch, there’s more of a push this time around.
“My prediction, if there’s no drastic change in the political and economic landscape, is that this one is real, the intent is real, the investment is real,” Hecht said. “MOXIE is such a large investment by NASA [about $50 million]. It also suggests it’s real.”
Hecht has significant experience working with Mars landings. He was the principal investigator on a previous landing, the Phoenix project out of the University of Arizona, which touched down on the Red Planet in 2008. At the time, he was in the home stretch of a 30-year career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
As he approached age 60, he and his wife decided that it was time to come back to Massachusetts. A Dorchester native, he had grown up in Newton and met his wife in a Jewish youth group. After 36 years on the West Coast, he looked for a position back East.
However, he had some regrets: His position at the Jet Propulsion Lab was “extremely fulfilling,” he said. “I thought I was leaving things behind, exciting things [like] going to Mars.”
Instead, he found a position as the associate director of research management at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, as well as leadership roles in two ambitious projects: Mars 2020 – the Perseverance Rover – and the Event Horizon Telescope, which seeks an enhanced understanding of supermassive black holes.
“To be involved in both these projects like the Event Horizon Telescope and going back to Mars, I never could have imagined,” Hecht said, adding that both enterprises are about “the kind of science I like, where your perspective on things is shaped in a good way. You can extend what you know about our environment, our world, [even] what you can see at the far reaches of the galaxy, the solar system.”
Hecht’s colleagues include MIT professor Jeffrey Hoffman, the deputy principal director of MOXIE, who is also Jewish. In 1996, Hoffman brought a Torah into space and read from the Book of Genesis while working as an astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Hecht’s own Jewish connections include attending Temple Emanuel in Newton when he was younger. He currently goes to Temple Shalom, also in Newton.
In Genesis, Hecht notes, “we are told to go out and be the stewards of the land, name the animals, name things. We are told to go to places we do not know, go out and explore.”
He invoked a variation on a well-known Hebrew phrase – “tikkun olam” (repair the world) – and urged responsibility in space exploration.
“I think it is very much a connection for me between what I do and what the Torah talks about,” Hecht said.