A small, green, plastic alien hides among a pile of rocks on the corner of Kathleen Benison’s desk. Its tiny hand is raised, waving. In a few months, she may know if aliens are real.
The WVU geology professor sits in her office, sweeping her fingers through her ashy, blonde hair. She’s the first full time female professor of her kind at WVU.
A string of glossy gemstones sits on her neck and dangle from her ears. Across from her, a desktop and laptop are switched on. Just the day before, she was locked in her room, using her laptop to Skype with other scientists.
Above the desk, six pictures of pastel colored rock designs hang. Some of the lines are curvy, like a country back road. Some look like they belong on a kitchen counter.
“Those are small samples of rocks under a microscope,” Dr. Benison explained, eyeing the frames. “Those rocks are millions of years old.”
Space and rocks have always been something Benison found interesting.
Benison fell in love with space as a high school student in Boston. She met Sally Ride, the first American woman that blasted off into space. It was exciting. Space was something that had no limit.
Now, years later, Benison finally has the chance to explore new aspects of space. Her research could change everything we know about Mars.
Benison says this mission is important to the world of science and technology. Scientists will be bringing back samples from Mars for the first time.
“What we’re doing, it has never been done before,” she said.
In July 2020, Benison is teaming up with NASA to launch a robot to Mars. She doesn’t expect to find aliens on Mars, but, she said, who knows? She applied for the mission in 2017 and a few months ago, she was accepted as one of the 400 people from around the world to be involved in the mission.
Once the robot lands, it will pick up small pieces of rock with its claw-like hands. While it’s there, its mission is to look for habitability, check out the climate, and prepare for humans. After it loads all the data into its system, the rocket with the robot is slated to land in California in February 2021.
Benison is part of a 10-person team. Once 20 rock samples are collected, they will meet up in California and study them.
Benison will be there, watching it come back down to Earth from California. She’ll see it leave, too. Next year, in July, the robot will take off from Florida.
“They told me to invite my whole family for the launch,” she said. “It’s going to be a big thing.”
Her teenage children aren’t as thrilled about it as she would have hoped. After asking her oldest if she wanted to go, she quickly said no. So did her other daughter.
“Florida in the summer was just too hot and humid for them,” Benison laughed. “I think my husband is excited, though. I just have to spend a lot of time working on this project. Even now.”
Whenever she has video meetings with her team, it’s Pacific Standard time. Soon, once the robot lands in July, Benison will be on Mars time, which has one more hour than Earth. She said that the extra hour adds up over time.
Benison has earned degrees from three universities, including her PhD. In all of the schools, she only had one female professor. She said that she got used to being different. Now, it seems to be paying off.
She’s been with the WVU for eight years now, and she’s moving her way up. She started as an assistant professor, and now she’s full time.
A few decades ago, the world would’ve never thought exploration of Mars was a realistic goal, but now it’s possible- even for women. She doesn’t know if aliens will be found there, but there is always a possibility.
“Mars and Earth are pretty similar in a lot of ways,” Benison said. “And one of the things we keep learned from Earth is that, the more we look for life, the more we find it. It exists everywhere we look.”