Northern Scottsdale resident and senior scientist Jim Rice knew from age 6, he wanted to explore space.
More than that, Rice wanted to be an astronaut; and he was a finalist to be one — twice.
“I was one person away in one of the rounds,” said Rice, who was a finalist in 1999 and again 10 years later when he was 50. “I was very shocked.”
Rice, now 60, didn’t achieve his goal of being an astronaut, but he went to work for NASA.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “My whole life I was aiming for this target, [but] it really sent me on a course to do some things I never would imagine I did or thought would happen.”
Rice’s referring to spending six months in Antarctica at a Russian base from November 1991 to May 1992, as an Arizona State University graduate student.
“That’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in my life,” Rice said. “Working on the Mars Rovers was great; don’t get me wrong. But I wasn’t on Mars; I was on my computer monitor.”
Rice was a co-investigator and geology team leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project for both Spirit and Opportunity.
He also has mission experience working on the Mars Odyssey Orbiter and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Projects.
But it’s the time he spent working in Antarctica he calls “a fascinating expedition and fraught with danger.”
“Growing up in the Cold War, I never thought I’d be hanging out with Russians and the Russian base,” Rice said. “It was like science fiction.”
Rice was a member of the first joint U.S.-Russian Antarctic expedition since the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
He was joined by fellow graduate student Peter Doran from the Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, and Dale Andersen, U.S. Field Team Leader.
Their purpose was to investigate the physical, chemical and biological properties of ice-covered lakes in the Bunger Hills Oasis of East Antarctica.
“The reason I went to Antarctica was to learn about Mars. I had met some scientists about seven years previously who worked for NASA, and they had been to Antarctica,” Rice said. “Antarctica is the most Mars-like place on Earth.”
According to the 1992 NASA report summarizing the expedition, robots and tethered human divers conducted underwater studies during the expedition.
Rice, a member of the scuba diving team, said he almost got killed several times.
“If you can make it in Antarctica, you can make it anywhere. It was a harsh place,” he said. “We had to make out our last will and testament before we left and it was kind of a weird thing to do.”
Rice is still friends with some of the Russian men he worked with during the expedition.
Rice received his Ph.D. in Geological Sciences in 1997, from ASU and, in 2002, worked on the Mars Exploration Rover Project.
“It wasn’t until this past August when it officially ended,” Rice said. “It was originally only going to be a 90-day mission, but it lasted 15 years.”
Rice’s job was to analyze the images from Mars and determine the geologic history of the area.
“At the time of the ‘90s, talking about ancient lakes on Mars was very controversial. It was like scientific heresy. It was going totally against the grain of the scientific thought at the time about Mars,” Rice said.
But Rice believed in it.
He gave presentations at science conferences about the topic.
“It was really amazing to work on the Opportunity Rover because, lo and behold, we found lake beds on Mars. That was a neat personal story for me,” Rice said. “I was ridiculed at times and then to be on the team with the Rover that actually found dried-up Lake beds on Mars.”
The project wrapped in August and Rice has missed working on it every day since.
“It was weird — I still can’t explain it — the attachment you have with these robots,” Rice said. “It’s been almost 17, 18 years of my life working on these things.”
“But he was my friend on Mars, and it was doing what I would do if I was there,” he continued. “It was an extension of our hands and our eyes and our legs and everything in our brains. And it was tough to see it go.”
Rice continues to research the geology and history of water on Mars, particularly through Planetary Science Institute (PSI), a Tucson nonprofit dedicated to solar system exploration, he joined in 2013.
“I’ve done some work with the moon,” Rice added. “The moon is starting to come back into focus because, hopefully, we’re going to get people back up there by 2024.”
In December, Rice traveled to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to tour the Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room and to see Mars 2020, NASA’s next spacecraft headed to the Red Planet.
NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is expected to launch sometime between July 17 and Aug. 5, landing on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.
“It was just cool to be there and be at close to the Rover,” Rice said. “It’s either going to land or it’s going to crash. There are no two ways around it.”
On Jan. 17, Rice presented about the U.S.-Soviet race to the moon at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West in Old Town.
Rice experienced his fair share of setbacks but considers himself lucky for figuring out what he wanted to do early in life.
“As a kid and I was made fun of. I had teachers tell me I was too stupid, and I’d never worked for NASA,” he said. “But I remember an astronaut gave a talk, and ... he said, ‘Never give up.’”