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Interview with Scott Sandford, astrophysicist.

scott sandford

Tell us about your childhood.  Was there anything at a very early age that nudged or pointed you toward an interest in science?

I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s hard for me to identify a single event that predisposed me to science because I was kind of steeped in it as an environment. I was constantly surrounded by a lot of people doing a lot of very interesting things. I had almost daily exposure to things that made it clear that doing science was a very wonderful thing to do. I do remember getting my first telescope as a Christmas present when I was around 10 years old, it was a 2.25-inch refractor, and I used it to do a science fair project where I studied the sun for 40 or 50 days. I’d sketch the sunspots every day and by watching them move I was able to determine its rotation rate. When I was a teenager, I spent a chunk of my own hard-earned money to buy a used telescope from a neighbor, a 6-inch reflector. Over the years I’ve continued to upgrade and I now own an 8-inch Celestron, a 12-inch Meade, and a Coronado solar scope with a hydrogen-alpha filter. My early interests weren’t restricted just to astronomy, but it was obviously a favorite. Because of that interest, I voraciously read a lot of astronomy stuff. Not surprisingly, the Los Alamos Public Library had a pretty good science collection and I devoured the entire astronomy section. I probably could have done a credible job explaining most of the nucleosynthesis before I was a teenager (well, nucleosynthesis as it was known at that time anyway).

Why were you in Los Alamos?

I was born in Lansing, Michigan, while my parents were going to Michigan State University. My mom says I was almost born in one of the university’s experimental strawberry patches, but apparently, this was avoided through the assistance of a friendly trucker passing by who got her to the hospital. I don’t remember much of Michigan, however. When I was two, my father got a job at the (then) Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. He was a nuclear engineer but he never talked about his work so I usually tell people, “I don’t know what he did, so I know what he did.” Later when I was an undergraduate, I worked for a seismologist and could look at seismic records and see that my father’s travels often coincided with large surface shock waves centered in Nevada. It must have been very hard on him to not be able to talk about his work at all. Later in his career, he moved on to other areas of the Lab and could talk a bit more about what he did.

Almost all my childhood memories are about Los Alamos. It was a great place to grow up. It’s at an altitude of about 7200 feet up in the Jemez Mountains. It’s a beautiful place with lots you can do outdoors. For much of my childhood, I lived on the rim of White Rock Canyon, which gave a spectacular view of the Rio Grande river down below. Since the town at the time was basically all about the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, the town itself didn’t have much else at that time, at least not by SF Bay Area standards. However, you were continually surrounded by highly educated, motivated people, and a lot of interesting stuff was going on.

The educational system was top notch. Many of my teachers were extremely well educated and some were ex-Lab employees who decided they wanted to do something else, so I got a fantastic education. Of course, when you’re growing up you think the way you’re growing up is the way everybody grows up; you don’t think there’s anything unusual about it at all. Until I went off to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology as an undergraduate, I just assumed that everybody grew up like that. It wasn’t until then that I started to realize that my environment growing up had been a little bit ‘odd.’  

In any event, Los Alamos had a very positive influence on me. In particular, my going on to become a scientist clearly has something to do with growing up in Los Alamos. There were no nerds in my high school. There were people who were more interested in athletics and there were people who were more interested in the astronomy club, but I never felt like there was a hierarchy of who was deemed to be “cooler”. Science was “cool”, along with lots of other things. I sometimes talk to other people who say “I was a geek” or “I was persecuted because I was a nerd”, but that experience was completely foreign to the way I was raised. While I don’t think that’s specifically what led me to go into science, it was clear to everybody I grew up with that this was a perfectly legitimate thing to do. There was no impetus to stay away from it or anything like that. In addition, we weren’t raised to believe this stuff was hard because everybody around us did it. My neighbors did it. My friend’s parents did it. How hard could it be? To this day I feel sort of funny when people refer to someone as Dr. So-and-So because it seemed like practically everybody in Los Alamos was a Dr. So-and-So, so you just used their names. I sometimes wonder if I came across as slightly irreverent to some of my college professors because it didn’t generally occur to me to use their titles all the time. I can remember in junior high when I made a new friend and discovered his father was the town florist, coming home and telling my mom how exciting and interesting and “cool” it was that his father was a florist! 

How about your educational background: schools, majors, grad school, etc.?

It’s probably not surprising that when I went off to college I was interested in science. At New Mexico Tech I declared that I was going to be a geophysicist. I had been named a “Tech Scholar” before I got there, which was a program that guaranteed, among other things, that I’d have a half time job while I was there. This was important since I needed to pay most of my own way through school. I had four siblings close on my heels, so I needed to make sure there’d be money for them to go to college too. 

While at Tech I worked for a seismologist, locating earthquakes in the southwest. One of my responsibilities was to run a seismic station near Carlsbad, New Mexico, that was monitoring the seismic stability of the proposed WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) site for radioactive material and process the data. [As an aside, I’ll note that I have a slightly perverse enjoyment of earthquakes now that I’m in California. Every time I feel the shock of a P wave, I immediately begin counting the seconds to the S wave’s arrival so I can estimate how far away the epicenter is and make an estimate of the magnitude. Depending on the nature of the S wave, you can also guess something about the nature of the crust between you and the earthquake.] This job let me do real science to pay my way through college.  

That was during the school year. In the summers I went back to Los Alamos and worked at the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility, which was a world-class medium energy linear accelerator. The first summer I worked for a group that was setting up muon-proton scattering experiments. I suspect they were lucky if they broke even on me in terms of effort expended vs. value received that first summer. But I learned a lot and it established my lifetime philosophy concerning interns. With interns in my own lab, that’s the measure I hold them to since it would not be fair to expect anything more, given what I did during my first year!

The second year they moved me to a different group, which did a number of things, including biomedical research. I spent quite a bit of time working on pion cancer therapy. We demonstrated that this approach worked, but since you need a gigantic accelerator to treat a few people a day, it’s not really all that practical. My main job was to try to monitor and characterize the pion beam and also generate new ‘tunes’ for the doctors. They come to us and say “I need a beam that has this momentum and this shape and size” and I’d try to figure out how to control the multitude of enormous magnets in the beam line to get that. Usually, the doctors would use the beam during the day to treat patients and we physicists would work on the beam at night. It was a fantastic experience and a lot of fun.

I was also getting to do some of the original work on proton tomography, which is like a CAT scan but instead of using the absorption of x-rays you measure the momentum loss of protons. One of the interesting aspects of this work for me involved helping a doctor mount human specimens for study. I have a vivid memory of being awakened at 3 am one night by a doctor at the morgue in Albuquerque, saying “Quick, you’ve got to come and help me mount this pair of lungs! And guess what? They’re from a coal miner, it’s so exciting!” This project led to one of my more interesting encounters with the FBI.

If you grow up in Los Alamos you get acquainted with the FBI and other federal security folks – they show up at your door periodically, do security checks on everyone, talk to your parents about your neighbors, and all this kind of thing. Also, since regular police officers aren’t allowed to enter many of the lab’s sites, the FBI or someone similar gets the job even for rather mundane items. I remember they came to our house once so my Dad could get them to fill out an insurance claim for a window on one of our cars that was accidentally broken while on Lab property. In any event, at one point during our proton tomography project, we had various specimens in a special refrigerator at the beam line. One day while we were away, one of the day staff came in and decided it would be convenient to put his lunch in the refrigerator, despite there being a big sign that said: “Scientific specimens, do not disturb”. Well, this guy opened it up and immediately saw things he recognized as human body parts, and he was sure there was a mass murderer at the place. At that time, we were only getting a little sleep during the morning before coming back in for the next day’s runs. It was exhausting. As we started to trickle in to work the morning after it was reported there was a mass murderer at the facility! We were met at the door by the FBI, who wanted to determine if we were, in fact, mass murderers. I ended up sitting for some time in a back room waiting for my boss to show up because although I had explained everything to them, they didn’t know if they could believe the wild story this kid was telling. So, I got to temporarily chill until my boss arrived and they sorted it all out. In the end, they decided everything was fine, but suggested we consider putting a padlock on the refrigerator!

Those two jobs (seismology at NM Tech and particle physics at LAMPF) pretty much paid my entire way through college. I’m rather proud of this, both as a self-achievement and because it helped my family financially so that all my siblings could also go to college without it being a financial problem.

NM Tech was a very small college; it only had about 800 students, of which half were graduate students. My graduating class was about 100 people, and four of us were physicists. You got a lot of personal attention, but you didn’t have all the social opportunities and resources that you would have at a really big university. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the male/female ratio was about 10 to 1 (I’m told It’s much better now!), so there was very little going on in a social way. A lot of us used all that extra time to do our job and take additional classes. I always took a much heavier than recommended course load and got degrees in both math and physics in 3 ½ years, which meant I had about a half year to kill before I could conveniently go to graduate school, so I did a half year’s work in the mathematics department as a graduate student. I wasn’t sure at that time if I wanted to do math or physics so I applied to a lot of different places for graduate school, including Stanford, and got accepted to all of them, but I still wasn’t entirely sure which one I wanted to accept.

I decided to do a road trip during the Easter holiday and visit a lot of these places. One school I was particularly interested in was the University of Wisconsin because they had a high energy astrophysics program where all the knowledge I had about particle physics would have been very useful. That was kind of at the end of my trip out, and on the way there I stopped at Washington University in St. Louis to visit an old friend from Los Alamos who was studying there. Without my knowing, he had set up an interview for me with folks in the physics department. I didn’t want to appear ungracious, so I went to the interview. They spent a lot of time on me, dragging me around to show me everything, and generally impressed me with all the interesting stuff they were doing. They had a cosmic ray group where my experience with instruments at LAMPF would have been directly applicable, and before the tour was over they said they wanted me to apply to be a graduate student in the department. I told them, “Well, I’ve already applied to a bunch of places, and I barely have enough gas money to get home, so I can’t pay the fee”. They said, “No, we’ll waive the fee.” They clearly weren’t going to let me go until I applied, so I sat down and filled out the form. Then I went on to the University of Wisconsin and discovered that it wasn’t what I had hoped it would be, so I drove back to New Mexico still not sure where I was going to go to graduate school.

When I got back to NM, there was this giant packet waiting for me from Washington University telling me that I had been accepted for graduate study and offering me the Gus Grissom Astronautics Fellowship, one of three astronautic fellowships that had been created to honor the Apollo 1 astronauts. Since money was still a consideration for me (I still had to support myself through all of this) I took notice immediately. At that time a typical graduate student in the physics department at WashU would be paid $4,700 a year to do a teaching or research assistantship and they would have 11 credit hours of tuition waived. The Astronautics Fellowship was for the outrageous sum of $6,500 per year, with 12 credit hours waived (this extra credit hour would later prove to be very important!) and that really got my attention. I sat down and read through all the material, made calls, checked it out, and decided that WashU really was a very good fit for me. I accepted their offer and since I had one of the Astronautic Fellowships, I was effectively not only part of the physics department but also a part of the McDonald Center for Space Sciences, which included faculty and students from physics, chemistry, planetary geology, etc. The physics department and the Center did a lot of work on extra-terrestrial materials, like lunar rocks, meteorites and that sort of thing and I got sucked into that activity. When I arrived, I thought I’d probably go settle in with the cosmic ray people, but that wasn’t the way it worked out. I was very quickly involved in various kinds of research associated with meteorites and cosmic dust and that’s what really started me on my path of working on extra-terrestrial materials. I did my thesis work on cosmic dust that was being collected in the stratosphere using U-2 aircraft, which were flying out of the Ames Research Center! They would fly the planes and I would receive the collectors and spend weeks and weeks in a bunny suit in the clean room with a micro-manipulator picking out these microscopic dust grains so we could study them. 

I didn’t know the U-2’s physically collected things, I know they took pictures.

Well, the NASA U2s were flying to carry out all sorts of missions. Someone designed little sealed units that carry dust collectors on the wings. Once the plane got to an altitude of 60,000 feet the pilot could hit a switch to pop the containers open and expose the collectors to the air stream. Impacting grains would then stick into a thin layer of silicone oil on the surface of the collector. Some of these grains were pollutants that had gotten up into the stratosphere but some of them were dust grains settling down from the upper atmosphere that had survived deceleration as they arrived from outer space. Some of the grains were also rocket exhaust; we collected lots of little aluminum oxide spheres that probably came from the solid rocket boosters. The pilot would then seal up the collectors before the aircraft descended so no additional contamination could get on them. Once a collector received enough total exposure in the stratosphere (40-60 hours), they would be removed and some of them came to WashU, where I’d spend weeks using a microscope and micromanipulators to find and remove individual grains for study.

A lot of my thesis was devoted to working with what was then a very small community, much of it at WashU, but also with folks in Dr. Donald Brownlee’s lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. We were trying to figure out whether the grains we were collecting really were from space. Potentially they could have all been junk, you know, cat hair, dandruff, etc., and it took years to demonstrate to everybody that some of these grains really were interplanetary dust grains! The work was particularly difficult because these grains are so small. A typical ‘big’ particle might be 10-20 microns across and weigh a nanogram, and that particle might itself consist of an agglomeration of micron and sub-micron grains so that one particle might contain maybe 10,000 sub-grains, each with masses in the sub-picogram range. The analytical challenge was enormous, and a lot of our work was associated with trying to develop techniques to micro-analyze things. The development of these techniques ultimately became very important for other things as the study of interstellar grains found in meteorites.

I also worked on meteorites as part of my thesis and had the opportunity near the end of my time in grad school to go to Antarctica with the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) Program, to collect meteorites during the 1984-85 field season. At that point they had only been doing this for a handful of years, so I got to be an old Antarctic hand in the semi-dark ages.  We found a lot of meteorites, including a very exciting one from Mars. I just loved it down there. Antarctica is not a comfortable place to work and you have to be very careful about safety, but it has kind of a magnificent desolation that in many ways reminds me of parts of New Mexico, so I always feel very at home when I’m there.

This is a picture of the martian meteorite ALH88001, which we found near the Allan Hills on the 1984-1985 ANSMET field season.
This is a picture of the Martian meteorite ALH88001, which we found near the Allan Hills on the 1984-1985 ANSMET field season. This is the meteorite that was later suggested to contain microfossils, although this is not currently a commonly accepted interpretation.

How do you find meteorites there? Is it easier because the ice is white?

There are multiple reasons why Antarctica is a good place to hunt for meteorites. One is because you don’t have to be very bright to recognize a black rock on blue ice. If a meteorite falls here in California, we might all walk by it a hundred times and never notice it, but a rock sitting alone out on the ice is quite obvious, so you’ll go check it out. That’s one advantage, a sort of visual contrast. But there are other reasons that have to do with the mechanics of ice movement in Antarctica. Meteorites don’t fall there any more frequently than anywhere else on the Earth in terms of the number per square mile per minute. However, most meteorites that fall to Earth go straight into an ocean. A meteorite that lands here in California gets soaked, frozen, thawed, plowed under, or paved over, so it has a rather limited lifetime during which it’s recognizable as a meteorite. In Antarctica a meteorite is dropped into a deep freeze; it’s like putting it into a refrigerator. It doesn’t degrade as fast so the lifetime is longer, which means they can accumulate longer, which increases the density of them per square kilometer. In addition, when a meteorite lands in Antarctica, it gets compressed into the ice and flows with the ice towards the edges of the continent. Most spend a million years or so in the ice and then they get dumped into the ocean in an iceberg and then the iceberg melts and the meteorite goes to the bottom of the ocean, end of story. But there are places where the moving ice runs into a barrier, like a submerged mountain range, and the ice will stagnate or get thrust upwards. In Antarctica, you have katabatic (gravity fed) winds that result from cold air sinking to the surface and then running downhill like water. There are zones where these winds are almost non-stop, and since the humidity in Antarctica is very low, ice that is pushed up into this wind just sublimes away. It’s the same process that makes the ice shrink in your frost-free freezer. What this means is that you effectively have places in Antarctica where you have the equivalent of ice flow conveyor belts that are conveying meteorites from the vast interior of the continent into these barriers where the meteorites are brought up to the surface as the ice around them ablates away and strands the meteorites. Over time this process can result in the accumulation of a lot of meteorites. In these ablation zones, if you search a square meter of space, you’re really searching the equivalent of what’s been accumulated for thousands of years over a much larger fall zone. And, of course, when they come to the surface, they are black or gray rocks sitting on blue ice, and very obvious. If you can find these places, you can find meteorites fairly handily.  I’ve been to places where you can literally stand on the seat of your snowmobile and point in multiple directions and say “there’s a meteorite, there’s a meteorite, there’s a meteorite…” If you can find and get to these places you can recover a lot of meteorites. But it’s hard work and the conditions are miserable in many ways. It’s very cold even in the summer and since the meteorites are found in ablation zones, you hang out in places where the wind blows pretty much non-stop. I’ve talked to old Antarctic hands who have been down there twenty times or more and they say “Yeah, I went out with ANSMET once and I’ll never do it again! It was the coldest I’ve ever been!” On a good day, the temperature may be -10 or -15 degrees oC (not so bad), but the wind chill is likely to be an additional -20 to -40 degrees. On days when the wind picks up above ‘normal’, you don’t even go outside, you just stay in your tent and hunker down and wait for it to be over. But I love it down there. I’ve been there three times and I’d love to go again. The big problem is it takes about two months to get in, do the work, and then re-extract yourself. As my career has evolved it has become harder and harder to be able to get away for this much time. If you are involved with a NASA mission you can’t always afford to just take off for two months.

Make the connection between that work or the other work you were doing during or after your post-graduate degree, and how you got to Ames?

Going to Antarctica that first time delayed my thesis a bit. At the time I was getting near to completing it and I was starting to think about where to go next. I went to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society to check out the talks, give a talk about the infrared spectra of stratospheric IDP’s (Interstellar Dust Particles), and take advantage of their job fair. A lot of my thesis was on the infrared spectra of IDPs and their comparison with the IR spectra of comets and asteroids. Thus, a lot of my analytical expertise was in the area of infrared spectroscopy. At the job fair, one of the people I ran into was Mike Werner from the Astrophysics Branch here at Ames, where one of the big things going on was infrared astronomy, which at that time was a rapidly developing field. He thought I had an interesting combination of skills and that my knowledge of infrared spectroscopy of extraterrestrial materials could bring a new angle to the studies going on at Ames. In addition, Lou Allamandola, who had come here a year and a half before was trying to set up an astrochemistry laboratory. They thought I would be a good person to help Lou do that. They encouraged me to write a proposal to the NRC (now called the NPP). I did and got selected. I ended up getting here a bit late because my first trip to Antarctica delayed things, but they were very patient at this end and saved the spot for me until I could come.

When I arrived, I still had things to finish up for my thesis on extraterrestrial materials, but I was also sucked right into the activities that surrounded getting the Astrochemistry Laboratory going. At that time Lou and I had essentially zero resources, zero money, and no real space. Fortunately, there were a lot of people from different areas who wanted us to succeed and we got help from them.  At some point we inherited a broken down IR spectrometer that was very similar to the one I did my thesis on, so we were able to get that up and working again. We got our first cryo-vacuum system together based on a design Lou had from his days at Leiden University and we started to do experiments. A lot of the experiments in those days were devoted to trying to help with the identification of infrared spectral features that NASA was getting from telescopes like the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). This period was one that I remember very fondly. Lou and I would be working days in the lab and then at night we’d be flying on the KAO – going back and forth trying to see if we could get things to match up. This process resulted in the identification of many of the components of interstellar ice that we now know are around protostars. A lot of this work was also devoted to testing the idea that many of the infrared emission features that people were detecting in space were due to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Lou was at the forefront of this idea, but it wasn’t really accepted by most people at the time. Some people were actively hostile about it, in fact. It took a long time and a lot of work by many people to establish that the connection between PAHs and the infrared emission features was real. During this period, I didn’t do much research on extraterrestrial materials, with the exception that I did go down to Antarctica with ANSMET two more times.

This is a picture of the lunar meteorite MAC88105, which I found near the MacAlpine Hills during the the 1988-1989 ANSMET field
This is a picture of the lunar meteorite MAC88105, which I found near the MacAlpine Hills during the 1988-1989 ANSMET field season. At the time this was the largest known lunar meteorite and it contained enough material for NASA to arrange for a consortium study based on it.

The second time I went to Antarctica (1988-1989 field season), I found what was at that time the biggest known lunar meteorite (MAC88105), another one of my fond memories. Eventually work on extraterrestrial materials came back because I was contacted by Don Brownlee, who I mentioned earlier was one of the first people working on cosmic dust while I was doing my thesis work on them. He had put together a team to propose a Discovery mission to collect cometary and interstellar dust and bring it back to Earth for study. “Would I like to be a Co-I on the proposal?” he asked. I, of course, said, “You bet!”

After several attempts, the mission was selected. We flew the Stardust mission to Comet 81P/Wild 2, collected samples from its coma, and brought them back to Earth for study. We also collected some contemporary interstellar dust while we were in our orbital cruise phases. That was a fantastic experience! At that time, we were in the so-called “Faster, Better, Cheaper” mode. The team was small and resources were minimal. As a result, everybody had to help everybody else with everything. I got to see a mission developed, built, and flown from A to Z, which was a fantastic education. The mission worked great, was on budget, captured the sample, and brought it back. Studying the returned sample was very exciting. I led the analysis team that focused on organic materials.  We learned things about the solar system and its formation that had not been appreciated before. It revised our opinions about how a lot of the things had happened in the first few million years of the solar system. It was great science and tremendous fun. I loved the people I was working with, we were doing exciting new things, and I have a lot of fond memories of special things that happened along the way. For example, I was on the team that went to Utah to collect the capsule when it returned to the Earth. I have a very vivid memory of being in the helicopter that was staging to our jump-off point to recover the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) and looking over my shoulder and seeing the fireball going across the sky as the capsule came into the atmosphere. There are not many times in your life when you are conscious that you are present as history is being made, but in that case, I remember thinking as we were approaching the capsule on the ground that this was the first item that humanity had ever sent out of the Earth-Moon system and brought back. “And what the heck, I’m here! How did that happen?” 

That’s very significant!

This is a picture of the Stardust Sample Return Capsule as we found it after its return to Earth at the Utah Test and Training R
This is a picture of the Stardust Sample Return Capsule as we found it after its return to Earth at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) on January 15, 2004. Whitish marks on the capsule show where the capsule hit the ground when it landed, tumbled, and rolled. You can see the marks of the final death spiral on the ground.

In fact, the capsule is now on display in the Air and Space Museum in DC. Once, when I was back in DC for something else, I had some spare time and decided to visit the museum, since there’s always something interesting to see there. I walked in and there was the capsule in a case towards the back of the entry area. There were a bunch of kids gathered around it oohing and aahing and I almost teared up. I told the kids, “You know, I helped fly that and was there to help recover it when it came back to Earth”. They then had lots of questions and my visit to the museum turned from my looking around to my holding an impromptu Stardust seminar for a couple of elementary school classes. It was just amazing.

It was indeed a spectacular success. Can you address briefly what you’d say to the general public about why missions like that are important? 

Well, all space missions have important goals, but sample return missions are rather unique and hold a special place in my view. Most missions go someplace, measure things you want to measure, and then they’re done. Sample return missions have to go someplace and measure things, but then they have to collect a sample and get it back to the Earth. This is more difficult because you’ve got to go and come back. But it gives you all kinds of amazing advantages because now you have a sample in your hands! This allows you to avoid all kinds of restrictions on normal spacecraft missions, such as constraints on power, mass, etc. If you’re going to a place to take measurements, you have to launch all your analytical equipment to the target to measure things. But if you’re going to bring samples back and study them in facilities here on Earth, that equipment doesn’t have to be launched, so you’re not restricted like that. There are instruments that studied the Stardust samples that are a lot bigger than the Stardust spacecraft itself – even bigger than the launch pad that the spacecraft left from! Since you have the samples in your hand you can use the current state of the art analytical techniques and you can take the samples out and measure them over and over again. You don’t just measure them once and then throw them away. You can curate them. You can continue to learn from them as time goes on. People are still studying the Apollo rocks a half-century later and we’re still learning from them. A sample return mission gives in perpetuity. And because you can do things this way and don’t have these kinds of constraints, you can do things you would never do on an in-situ spacecraft. An analogy I give sometimes is this: you’re stuck living on a mountain top and you know there’s someone who lives on another mountain top across the intervening valley because you can see them in your telescope. By observing this person for a while you can probably figure out a lot of things about them – they usually take a break for lunch right around noon, they must like red because they wear red all the time, this person looks a lot like me so maybe has a similar biochemistry, and so on. However, no amount of watching will tell you that their biochemistry is based on DNA. To learn that you are going to have to travel to their mountain and jab a needle in them! (laughs). There’s a level that you can’t go past without having the stuff in your hands. In particular, if it’s in your hands, you can learn a lot about composition and structure that you just can’t learn from modeling or remote observation. This is part of my devotion to sample return missions.

The problem with being a sample return scientist is that the missions are difficult and the payoff is at the end. If you’re flying a spectrometer to an asteroid, you get to the asteroid, you take the spectra, you’ve got what you needed, and anything that happens after that is largely irrelevant. If you’re the sample return guy on that mission you’re thinking ‘OK the infrared spectra are definitely cool and they tell me something about what I can expect to get back, but I won’t be able to do my thing until the sample gets back. That means that everything still needs to keep working right until the very last moment of the mission. The Sample Return Capsule has to get back to Earth, survive atmospheric reentry, and land on the ground without exploding (laughs) before I have a chance to do the things I worked on this mission for.’ You have to be outrageously patient and you have to really fight hard to make sure everything goes just right for the whole mission.

This is a picture of the recovered Stardust Sample Return Capsule after it was bagged for shipment to a temporary clean room whe
This is a picture of the recovered Stardust Sample Return Capsule after it was bagged for shipment to a temporary clean room where the sample canister could be removed. I’m the one on the far right (if you have a hard time recognizing me, it is because I was forced to shave off my beard so I could wear a respirator if necessary. It took hours to get the mud off our boots.

Since there haven’t been many sample return missions, involvement with missions like Stardust suddenly makes you into a de facto expert. This results in you getting asked to participate in other sample return missions. I’ve been asked to participate in a number of proposals for sample return missions that have flown or are flying now. I worked with the Japanese on Hayabusa, which brought back a sample from the asteroid Itokawa, and I participated in the recovery of that sample return capsule as well. I’m currently on the OSIRIS-REx New Frontiers mission, which is now at asteroid Bennu doing great stuff. In the future, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will descend to Bennu’s surface, capture samples, and bring them back to Earth. I expect to be able to study some of those samples starting in 2023. The timing of this is such that it may be one of the last things I do before I retire. I’m also working with one of the organic analysis teams on JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission, which just recently captured samples from asteroid Ryugu.

I’m also participating in proposals for future missions that I will never see the end of. I feel obligated to help work on new ideas even though I won’t see them to a conclusion because I’ve already benefited from things that I didn’t have anything to do with the start of but that I got to be a part of after they were already in action. That’s what I call “the rolling generations of science”.

Those are marvelous high points. Is there something like a typical day for you?  And what do you like best and least about your job?

A typical day usually has nothing to do with high points! A typical day involves paperwork, safety training, inspections, struggling to procure things, figuring out how to get people paid, etc. This is not the kind of stuff you talk about when you visit elementary school classes (laughs), but that’s a lot of what a typical day is. On good days you also get to go into the lab, close the door, not answer the phone, and make measurements. And on the really good days, everything pays off and you suddenly understand something you didn’t understand before. Then you get to have a brief little moment when you realize that you know something that nobody else knows. Of course, being a scientist, the very next thing you do is go out and tell everybody what it is, so that moment doesn’t last very long! Yet those moments are extremely satisfying.

My least favorite part of the job is the paperwork and bureaucracy. My most favorite part of the job is the research, of course. I have to say, one of the parts of the job I like is interacting with the public, and in particular with school kids, because there’s a lot of enthusiasm out there for the sorts of things we do. They really want to know everything and they are excited about it. It’s fun to talk to them and show them what you’re doing. I hope these interactions serve as motivations to them, but there’s also a clear benefit to me. These interactions serve of a reminder that, yes, I do a lot of paperwork and sometimes the work is tedious, but what I’m doing is, in fact, pretty cool.

Is there anything that you do for fun that’s not related to your work?

My hobbies:  Well, I’m a voracious reader and have been since I lived in Los Alamos. I lived way out in the sticks and during the summers I often had to pretty much amuse myself. One of the highlights of the week was going to the public library in town and checking out every book that the library would let me tote out. They usually let me take out more than the theoretical limit because I always brought them back read and they liked that. In summers I would read hundreds of books. And I’ve never stopped reading like that. My wife is a librarian so she helps feed my mania by bringing home used books from book sales and library sales, so I’ve always got a huge pile of books to read.  These days I typically knock out books at the rate of one or two a week, even when I’m pretty busy. Reading is a big thing for me. I’m particularly into science fiction. I’ve even published a story. One of these days, maybe when I retire, I’ll start writing up all my other science fiction ideas.

I have also written a lot of humorous articles, a number of which have been published in the Journal of Irreproducible Results and, later, in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), which is a kind of “Mad Magazine” for scientists. AIR publishes humorous articles that find their motivations from science and science-related issues. AIR is the outfit that gives out the annual “Ig Nobel” prize awards for people who do science that seems to be very ‘unusual.’ Some of these papers are done to be funny but some also make important points. Over the years I’ve published something like fifteen of these articles. These include such things as the possible physics and chemistry of vampires while they’re in the gaseous state, reasons to believe UFOs might be powered by internal combustion engines, extrapolations showing that in another hundred years or so everybody on earth will be an American physicist, and so on. I’m always tickled when I spot one of my articles pinned on the bulletin board in a university hallway. I know a few people who use some of these papers in their course work as examples of the traps that statistics and extrapolations can lead you into. One of these papers is currently living a life of its own; it’ll probably still be getting passed around long after I’m gone. It was a short piece demonstrating that you can, in fact, compare apples and oranges. The journal and I have more or less lost control of this paper – it pops up in magazine ads for scientific instrumentation, gets passed around the web, has been looked at as a possible urban legend, etc., and I’m told it was once referenced on the front page of the Washington Post. I occasionally get emails from all around the world from people saying “I just read your article and it’s very funny, but here in Lower Crezikistan we don’t say it’s like comparing apples and oranges, we say it’s like comparing frogs and grandmothers!”  I say, OK, I’ll file that one away. Collecting the feedback has become something of a hobby for me at this point. I currently have a couple more of these articles in the works.

Another hobby is 3-D photography. I’ve been fascinated by 3-D images ever since my younger days when I had an old Viewmaster. I’ve made my own 3-D cameras and I own various commercial ones. One of the few things I collect besides books about Antarctica and science fiction books is old 3-D stereo pairs – quasi postcards they used to make in the 1800s and early 1900s. Of course, you can also make 3-D photographs with many spacecraft mission images. In grad school, I used an electron microscope to create the first 3-D image ever of an interplanetary dust particle.

I also spend time (probably more than I should) playing World of Warcraft (a video game). In fact, it’s one of the ways I keep in touch with some of my friends from ancient days. I have a friend I’ve known since I was three and we play World of Warcraft pretty regularly. While we’re slaughtering dragons and so forth, we can also chat on the voice channel about how our families are doing, what’s up at work, and so on. 

What accomplishment are you most proud of that’s not science related?

I grew up United Methodist and have always been pretty active. When we came to California, we found a congregation we liked, St. Andrews Church in Palo Alto. It’s a fairly small, very diverse group of people and very socially active. I was quickly sucked into the mechanics of running the church and I’ve been an officer in one capacity or another since forever. I’ve done multiple stints as the Chairman of the Administrative Council, which is kind of the top administrative function. During one of my tenures as the Chair, we engaged in a discussion about whether we should become a “Reconciling Church,” which involves making it publicly clear your congregation is fully accepting of everybody, including gays, lesbians, and transgender folks. At that time, there were very few churches that had declared to be that, fewer than a hundred. Since I was the Administrative Council Chairman, it was my job to navigate the process. Issues like this can potentially tear groups apart, so I tried very carefully to do everything in a thoughtful manner and we went through a process to review all the implications of what it would mean if we did this, bringing in people to talk to us, and so on. At the end, I didn’t want some committee to declare for the church whether or not we would do this, so I requested that everybody in the church vote on whether or not to register as a Reconciling Congregation. It was a secret vote; all the little slips of paper went into a hat and I and a couple of others went to count them. I can remember getting progressively choked up as we went through the votes, seeing one after another, positive vote, positive vote, positive vote until it was unanimous. Everybody agreed we should do it and I can remember being just grateful to everybody and very proud of the church, not so much myself, although I helped orchestrate the activity. Anyway, that was a proud moment for me. I think we were the 99th church to be so designated, and our congregation has been that way ever since and has every intention of remaining that way. People come in and we’re happy to have them, end of story.

You mentioned that you had one college credit that you didn’t know what to do with? Tell us about that.

Oh, I didn’t talk about the importance of that aspect of my Astronautics Fellowship! My Fellowship was for three years, and it made a big difference in my life in two major ways that extended beyond the fact that I had financial support. First, I was given the outrageous sum of $6,500 and two, I had that extra credit hour that wasn’t needed to meet the demands of my coursework and my research associateship. Those two things ended up having a big effect on me.  

Anybody who knows me now will be surprised to hear me say that I considered myself to be a very shy person up to graduate school. I wasn’t very good a meeting new people or making small talk. As a graduate student in physics, I was kind of isolated, spending most of my days and nights in the lab. However, at some point, I realized that that extra bit of cash in the fellowship could be used to take a trip. The first summer I bought a ticket to England, threw a bunch of stuff in a backpack and with a little bit of cash in my pocket, I just hitch-hiked around. I had no real plan, no schedule, and very little money, but I managed to take a circuitous route from London all the way up to the Orkney Isles, north of Scotland, and come back in an equally haphazard way, all by hitching. I never used public transit once, and that’s kind of a hard thing to do without learning to talk to strangers. By the end of that summer, I knew how to engage quickly with people I’d just met. Shy no longer applied! I enjoyed the trip so much that the next year I hitched around Australia. So, that extra bit of money really changed my life in some important ways. Now nobody can get me to shut up! (laughs).

The other thing that made a big difference was that extra credit hour. At the time it felt like more of an administrative oddity, but it ended up being very, very important. After using 11 of the 12 credit hours to register for my physics coursework, I had this 1 credit hour left over. Since it was paid for, I was expected to use it, but when I went through the entire school catalog, I found there were almost no courses that were just 1 credit hour. The few that were there were all in the physical education department and most of them didn’t sound very interesting to me. But there was this course on ballroom dancing. For reasons I can’t really reconstruct now, I took another leap of faith and said, “Well, OK, I’ll do this”. I took the course and passed and I did OK… well, I wasn’t any worse than any of the other guys, and better than some, I guess. But then the next semester I had that extra credit hour again so I took the advanced ballroom dance course and I got a lot better. The next year there were no more dance courses and I still had that pesky extra credit hour, so I talked to the ballroom instructor and asked if I could just take the advanced class again. She said, “No, but I could use a teaching assistant and I’m always short of guys, so if you’ll show up and help, I’ll sign you up for that”. So, now I wasn’t a ballroom dance student, I was a ballroom dance instructor! That extra credit hour was taking me all sorts of places I hadn’t anticipated!

Well, that’s an aspect no one would have known if we hadn’t sat down with you!

At some point, during all of this, I actually got to be pretty good, at least in some of the dances.  Waltz, foxtrot and jitterbug/swing are favorites, and I can hold my own on a number of Latin forms like tango and cha-cha. I actually enjoyed it, although I don’t get to do it much these days.

At some point, I learned that WashU had a ballroom dance club that met on Wednesday nights and I thought, ‘Well, the lab can spare me one night a week, I’ll go to that.’ I went and it was a very informal affair, largely people who just showed up because they were curious. Nearly half of them didn’t know much about ballroom dancing, so if you knew anything at all, you quickly became a teacher and started helping other people. Since I had already served as a teaching assistant for the school’s ballroom dance class, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to do something similar at the club. And that’s where I met my future wife, Betsy. She was already a great dancer and somehow I got up the nerve to ask her to the Red Rose Cotillion at the school (or maybe she asked me, it’s all a haze now, but I don’t care because it all worked out). When we got married it was required that at least some ballroom dance music be played at the reception.

So that one little credit hour really helped shape your life! 

Right, it made a big difference!  Like I said, initially it seemed like more of an administrative nuisance, but in fact, it was one of the most important aspects of my fellowship. Without that credit hour, I almost certainly wouldn’t have met Betsy.  I owe a lot to that Astronautics Fellowship! 

How interesting that some little thing you might not have felt was very important at the time, weaved itself in and became quite important.

I think a lot of turning points in peoples’ lives are things that at the time nobody said: “I’m at a turning point in my life.” There are times when you know you are at a turning point, but a lot of times only in retrospect do you realize that a decision you made was going to have big ramifications. Often when I’m talking to students, they’ll ask: ‘What should I do to get where you’re at?’ I’m never entirely sure how to answer that because I feel that most peoples’ careers kind of ricochet around and end up in surprising places. This is not to say that the process is random, but it’s not exactly systematic either. The main thing that I try to stress when asked this question is to keep your eyes open and keep looking for opportunities. You don’t know what is going to come your way, and some of the opportunities may not be something that was on your menu already but give them a think, because they might lead you someplace. In the meantime, build your toolbox; build up a skill set associated with things that you’re pretty sure do interest you. That way if opportunities come along where your skills apply, you’re in a position to leap in. Truly active research scientists don’t do the same things all their life; they better not, otherwise it means their field is stagnant. Things evolve, and you need to keep moving with the frontier. It’s not all that unusual to discover that the career paths of scientists are a bit convolved. My research path took me from seismology to particle physics to medical physics to meteoritics to infrared astronomy to laboratory astrophysics/astrochemistry/astrobiology to sample return missions. These all sound somewhat unrelated, but in the end, they are all part of a path. I don’t recommend to students, “Well, if you want to be an astrophysicist at NASA, first work for a seismologist, and then go work at a linear accelerator, and then…” Everybody’s path is going to be different. Push for what you think you want, but at the same time be open to unexpected opportunities. They will take you to all kinds of interesting places and allow you to work with wonderful, fascinating people.

Who inspires you?

I’m not really a hero worshipper kind of guy. There’s never been anybody who was my image of someone who should be uniquely emulated. Instead, I take inspiration from everybody around me. The wonderful thing about working in the field of science like this is that you get to interact with wonderful people from all around the world. I’m just very proud of the people I’ve been able to associate with and very lucky to have had those opportunities. If I take inspiration from others It’s more of a gestalt kind of thing, rather than an individual thing. That being said, there are people I’ve always thought were truly great:  Gandhi, Martin Luther King,… I’ve always had a soft spot for Isaac Asimov. I think Mr. Rogers was actually an amazing person, and probably not appreciated anywhere near what he should be. There are certainly people who I think are worthy of adulation but I have never used any specific individual to map my path. I’ve tried to use lots of people to help me figure out the path to follow. 

Anything about your family, kids, or home life that you would like to share?

I told you how I met Betsy. She’s a librarian and when we came out here, she worked at the Ames Library. Then after about ten years, she went to work at the West Valley College library, where she’s been ever since. She’s one of the senior librarians there. We have two sons: Nathan, the oldest, is currently a graduate student in astronomy at UC Berkeley and doing very well. He was just awarded a very nice NSF Fellowship. Our younger son. Paul is a sophomore at UCSD where he’s taking courses toward an anthropology/archeology degree. He just made it onto the archery team, so now he’s shooting arrows at things for fun! I’m not going to argue with him anymore when he has a bow in his hand. (laughs)

If you could have your dream job, what would it be? 

My dream job would be my current job minus all the paperwork (although adding a couple of trips to Antarctica, the Moon, Mars, and a couple of asteroids and comets would be a nice extra).

What book currently resides on your bedside table?

I’m currently in the middle of several different books (as is typical for me). These include The Last Colony by John Scalzi (SF), Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (detective/crime book), Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race by David Eicher and Brian May, and Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid by Peter Nabokov (New Mexico history).

What music heads the playlist in your car or laboratory?

I’m a product of the age of Rock and Roll (Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.). Other favorites are They Might Be Giants and The Bobs. My younger son plays the electric guitar and the bass guitar very well and as a result, I’ve now been forced to appreciate Heavy Metal as well. I get to hear a lot of Gojira.

Do you have any favorite images?

There are a number that are memorable.  My favorite images are not always particularly beautiful, but they carry strong personal meanings.

This is a picture of me on the Far Western Ice Fields near the Allan Hills in Antarctica.  I was there as part of the 1984-1985
This is a picture of me on the Far Western Ice Fields near the Allan Hills in Antarctica. I was there as part of the 1984-1985 ANSMET field Season. I’m wearing my favorite ensemble which includes a lot of layers but no parka. (The tie is optional). Credits: Courtesy of Scott Sandford

How about a favorite quote?

There are a lot of options for this, but I’ll give you something that’s posted to the wall of my office. It’s from the book The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.  ‘Cherry’, at age 24, was one of the youngest members of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica (1910–1913; Scott’s second and last expedition to Antarctica). With fellow expedition members Wilson and Bowers, he made a harrowing trip man-hauling sledges to Cape Crozier on Ross Island in July 1911 during the austral winter in order to secure an unhatched Emperor penguin egg in the hopes that it would help scientists prove the evolutionary link between all birds and their reptile predecessors by analysis of the embryo.  The book, which is a testament to human endurance, ends with this paragraph:

“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?”  For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you travel will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

I wish I could have met him.

Interview conducted by Fred and Sara on 2/13/19