NASA People

Center Snapshot: Mark Vaughan
06.13.09
Mark Vaughn snapshot. Image above: Mark Vaughan, no lover of cold weather, ended up in the Science Directorate after his truck froze during winter two decades ago. NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

Around the world, hundreds of scientists are using data from the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) to come to conclusions about the effects of aerosols in the atmosphere.

No, that's an over-simplification and not completely accurate.

They're using data interpreted by a once-reluctant mathematician in the Science Directorate at NASA Langley.

"Actually, I'm here because I was a pretty good racquetball player," Mark Vaughan said, laughing and relaxing in a chair, his colorful Hawaiian shirt and sandals hinting of his past.

The "racquetball player" avocation, too, is an oversimplification and provides only an oblique reference to the story of a philosopher/bartender who knew how to fix boats before he knew how to interpret data, and of a wife who didn't want to raise children in Key Largo, Fla., while her husband tended bar a couple of miles from where, local legend has it, Bogart and Bacall were immortalized in a movie.

Vaughan was a military child who was on the Peninsula in time to graduate at old Ferguson High School in Hampton and matriculate to William and Mary.

"I was a philosophy major," he said.

And then he was a dropout. And then a philosophy major at William and Mary again, and then a dropout in the Virgin Islands and then the Florida Keys, tending bar – the philosophy education probably helped -- and repairing boats.

"I didn't like cold weather," Vaughan explained.

And wife Jane didn't like the idea of raising a family in the Keys.

"We looked on a map and picked out New Bern, N.C.," Vaughan said. "It looked like it had a boat business, and it wasn't so far north that it would be too cold, so we went."

And then found themselves back on the Peninsula, staying somewhat by accident because of … well, the cold. And because he was a groomsman in a couple of weddings, before he was to head to New Bern.

"I was driving my truck, jammed with everything we owned, and in the Keys you don't have to use antifreeze," Vaughan said. "You use water, and while we were in Virginia (the truck's engine) froze."

And they stayed.

"I was only going to be here for two weeks, and it's been more than 20 years now," he said.

After working in local boatyards for a bit, Vaughan decided that he needed a college degree and went to Christopher Newport, where he worked out a deal to combine mathematics and naval architecture. Then he found that he liked mathematics a lot more than he had in high school, and that naval architecture no longer held him in thrall.

His math grades at Ferguson? Vaughan shrugged. Not so great, he admitted.

Now, what to do with the math? Remember the racquetball?

"I used to play at Court Square," he said. "A guy there, Joe Alvarez (now a NASA retiree living locally), learned that I was a graduate in math and was at loose ends, and he told me he had some grant money and needed a mathematician."

That was at NASA Langley in 1988. The grant money ran out, but Vaughn stayed and has been here ever since.

"I'm having a huge amount of fun," he said of his math work on CALIPSO. "They pay me to do what I love to do."

He prepped for the job by working on the Lidar In-space Technology Experiment, the precursor to CALIPSO.

Vaughan's job involves using numbers to tell a story. "Without interpretation, all you have are a sequence of ones and zeros," he said. "We take the numbers and answer questions: 'Where's the cloud? What altitude? Can you see through it?'

"Our job is to distill the raw data into something that's practical for scientists."

To have a computer do much of that, Vaughan and his Science Directorate colleagues developed a family of algorithms that now produce all of the CALIPSO data products.

It's a long way from tending bar in the Florida Keys, and that the turn toward math and a career with NASA happened in his 30s is a lesson he's more than willing to pass on. At least one recipient is a son, Nick, living in Massachusetts after recently leaving the Marine Corps after three tours in Iraq in a five-year enlistment. Another is a daughter, Annie, in Alexandria.

"You don't have to know what you're going to do in life when you're 25," Vaughan said.

"This is a dynamic place to work. It suits me."

Even when it gets cold in the winter.