When you led the fault protection effort for the Kepler Space Telescope program for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the mission was to search for habitable planets in other solar systems that were light years away from our own. Tell me a little bit about your role in the program.
Fault protection refers to the systems that protect a satellite in the event a problem occurs in orbit. Since the Kepler Space Telescope would be orbiting much farther away from Earth than traditional satellites to collect the data required to find habitable planets in other solar systems, it was critical that the spacecraft be able to protect itself. I led the development team that created these protection systems for the Kepler spacecraft. We worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to design and build the hardware and software to do this. Fortunately, the systems worked as expected once Kepler was put into space in 2009. It went on to operate for 9 years discovering thousands of new planets. In addition to working on Hubble, the Kepler program represents one of my proudest achievements.
With all your interest and experience in space exploration, what insights can you share about the 2020 Mars Mission Perseverance Rover and what the project might mean for future human exploration of the planet?
I think the Perseverance rover is aptly named because it takes many years of hard work and dedication to get anything into space, let alone a rover that can travel across the surface of Mars. I have been involved in small ways with past Mars missions, so it is exciting to see that work continue. While specific missions are always exciting and interesting, I think the arc of exploration those missions achieve is what is truly exciting. With each mission we learn more and more, and we can apply that knowledge to future missions. I think Perseverance is an important link in a chain of exploration that will inevitably lead to humans walking on the surface of Mars someday. I just hope I’m alive to see it!
Why is this type of exploration necessary and important to the rest of us living back here on Earth?
I think the missions to Mars, such as Perseverance along with its predecessors and successors, are like Apollo was for me as a child and the Hubble Space Telescope was for the generation after me. Humans are explorers; we always have been and we always will be. Missions like this ignite our imaginations and give us hope for a better future. They help create the next generation of scientists and engineers that will make the next big discovery in medicine or the next technological breakthrough in clean energy. We need missions like this to keep our dreams alive.
What do you think or hope will come out of the Mars mission?
I would love to see conclusive evidence showing life existed (or still exists?) on Mars. Obviously, that would be microbial life, but the idea that another planet in our solar system could support life would be transformational to our thinking about ourselves and our place in the universe.
I also hope what we learn from Mars shows us how precious our planet Earth is, and that we have a responsibility to protect and preserve it for future generations. Perhaps if we better understand how Mars came to be as it is, we can learn from that to protect our own planet.
One of the reasons I love science so much is that it challenges our thinking and forces us to keep looking forward.
So you retired as Chief Software Engineer and Staff Consultant from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in 2015. What brought you back from retirement to take the position in 2020 as Principal Systems Engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space in Aurora, Colorado?
There were several things that brought me back into the aerospace industry. The first was that I genuinely love working in aerospace. There is always something new to do or discover. After working as an independent consultant for the past few years I thought I would enjoy being part of something more permanent. I was interested in Raytheon primarily because they work on ground systems, whereas most of my career has been working on satellites. I really wanted to learn more about these systems and how they support the larger missions.
What would you like to explore next?
I have been giving this question a lot of thought as of late. I have so many things that I still want to learn, discover, experience, and accomplish, but I realize that unlike the universe, my time is finite. I know I want to stay involved with aerospace in some capacity, but exactly what that looks like I don’t know yet. I do know I am excited about what the future holds…whatever that might be.