Straat was a leading astrobiologist. In addition to working on the Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer aboard the Mariner 9 spacecraft, she was co-investigator on the Labelled-Release Experiment aboard NASA's Viking Landers.
Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, a pioneer of astrobiology and Mars research, died of lung cancer on October 23, 2020. She was 84.
On October 23, 2020 the world lost an icon, but if she were here, she would say she was “just doing her job,” as humbly as many of her generation might. But Dr. Patricia Ann Straat was special, one of those individuals that had immense influence, but if you didn't know her, you might not have known. Thankfully, and with immense effort, and her dedication and skill as a writer, her experience has been documented in her book “To Mars With Love”, an Autobiography. It was in helping to publish her book that I had the incredible honor of learning the nuances of her brilliant work (and sharp wit).
In just 84 years, Pat had a successful academic career as U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor, at Johns Hopkins after graduating there with her Ph.D. in Biology and Biochemistry, which she left to become the first woman co-investigator of a Mars surface mission — Viking.
Dr. Straat accomplished many firsts alongside an incredible team led by Gil Levin, culminating in a positive result from the instrument seeking to detect “life” or biologic organics on Mars. During her years working on the mission she also became an accomplished equestrian, as she navigated life as a young woman and scientist in the ’70s, traveling between her home in Maryland and work in California.
Following her incredible “journey to Mars”, she returned to Maryland and “settled down” with her partner and horses, but continued her exceptional career at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the Molecular and Cellular Biophysics Study Section in July 1982, continuing until her retirement.
During the mission Pat took copious notes about her work, with the thought that she would like to share it at some time in the future. She began drafting her autobiography just after the Viking mission, and we spent the last three years of her life shepherding her life story from pen to print, where you can now find it at www.tomarswithlove.com (limited copies are available).
During this time, as our friendship grew, I got to know her, not just as the scientist that worked on the Viking mission with my father, but as the brilliant, funny, private, individual that was driven to perfection. As we delved into her work records, she was patient because my interest was genuine, and I was productive and driven, something we discovered we shared in personality even if my questions only brushed the surface of the implications of her work. Our conversations became more personal as time passed, and I saw more of the curious and vivacious young woman that could not be shut down by professors, engineers, even the great institutes for whom she worked. She laughed as she reflected on some who tried to pigeon hole her or get in the way of excellent science, and I quickly learned that there was little that she could not achieve if she put her mind to it. That drive was the very blood that coursed through each project, puzzle, and inquiry she faced. Combined with her dedication to perfection, scientific truths could not elude her. And as a consummate scientist, she was always in pursuit of the real truth, not just the outcome she would like to see. She was different from others in that respect. It made her better at her work, and unwilling to “settle” for a possibility. Instead she pursued it until the end, as our conversations about future missions would indicate.
But Pat wasn’t just about science. Her humor (which you can glimpse in her book) was rich and complex, just as her life. She lived parallel lives of work, society, extra-curricular pursuits — carefully sorting out efforts and individuals complementary to each other, and letting them mingle occasionally though her own finely tuned skills. Her friends enjoyed her beautiful woodcraft gifts, her photography, and joining her in her hunting and dog training achievements. She was gifted, and a gift to those who knew her. But that didn’t always make life easy, which was good, really, as she didn't like easy things. I was fortunate enough to witness her in many of these “hubs” as we became friends, and it made working on her Autobiography fun. Seeing her in the ring or running exercises in the basement with her dogs, editing the images for her book with her and her horses, holding her crafted wood boxes, and wading through images she had taken, mostly nature … I got to experience her life with her as we strategized, negotiated, and executed the publication of her book together. It took more than 30 edits between us to get the book to her satisfaction, and was an amusing competition for us to see who could find the most errors. Even editing her book with her was fun. And in one year she accomplished what many authors never do — reaching youth and adults in more than 17 countries.
And as her Autobiography was her last project, it was just as meticulously designed and executed as her Biology experiment, and accomplished what she desired, and more. What was funny and surprising, was how she was surprised at the interest in her own life, as we first brought the book to market, and as I set up interviews and meetings with magazines, students, and industry leaders. She knew her work was important, but she didn’t realize how special she was — until we emerged from behind the scenes where she was most comfortable.
As Pat’s illness set in, my desire for her to know just how much she impacted people became my obsession just as writing her book was hers. And so when I was able to convince her against her better judgment, to be my guest at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C., I was both anxious and excited. She was skeptical that I would be able to sell her books without a formal “plan”, but everyone who met her was thrilled, and the fun conversations between Pat, students, and industry folks was a marvel to witness, and we did sell every single one of the books we brought with us, and took orders for more. Her smiles during the day were everything I selfishly desired, as I think she finally realized just how important she was to others … not just her work, but she herself.
So despite her health challenges, we continued to set up talks through her last month, but with failing health she asked me to record her talk, which we accomplished one week before she passed. Her desire was to reach and inspire youth to work hard and achieve their dreams. I am certain those she reached in her last year will do so, in large part because of her.
Losing Pat was not just a loss to the community. I miss my almost daily conversations covering everything from reminiscing about Viking, to discussing politics and society, theories on evolution and matter, and in her last days, her community and the people she loved. Though she didn't “do the touchy feely stuff”, she was a devoted friend to all in her inner circle. She is deeply missed.
We will continue as promised to her to preserve and share her work and her Autobiography.