Questions and Answers with Bruce Jakosky
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, scheduled for launch in late 2013, will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. Bruce Jakosky is the mission’s principal investigator.
What is your role in the MAVEN mission?
I am the Principal Investigator of the mission. This means that I am in charge of the project as a whole and have overall responsibility for its success and for the science results that will come out of it. Of course, I have a team working with me, including a Project Manager who is responsible for implementing the project. I see my role as similar to that of the captain of a ship in the Navy. There are people above me who provide direction as to what we are doing and how we should do it. These people are in the NASA Headquarters Mars Exploration Program and in the Mars Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that oversees all of the Mars missions. But they leave the implementation details to us. And there are the people who report to us in the project. Each group has a role, such as providing the spacecraft or each of the science instruments, and each person within that group has a role. If everybody is doing their job, and shows the dedication and commitment necessary to do it successfully, then the project as a whole will be a success. It really takes an entire team.
What is an average day like for you?
Like so many people in any line of work, I spend the largest fraction of time doing email, talking on the phone, meeting with people, and writing documents. But it’s a great thrill that these activities all deal with making sure that we get a spacecraft and instruments built successfully and that it will be able to make the measurements when we get to Mars that will allow us to achieve our science results! One of my most important jobs is ensuring that we will achieve the science if we successfully build and fly the spacecraft. This means that I need to be up on everything going on across the entire project, as you can’t tell in advance where a seemingly trivial decision on an obscure point will ripple downstream to cause problems for the science.
What excites you about your job?
It’s incredibly exciting to think that we’re not just doing some esoteric thought experiment about how to learn about Mars. We’re actually building a spacecraft that we’ll launch to Mars, and it will go into orbit, make measurements about the Martian environment that have real meaning for understanding how Mars works, and will send the data back to Earth! And, as Principal Investigator, it’s to some extent my vision of what we need to do and how we need to do it that is being implemented. It’s a big responsibility, but I have a team of outstanding people working with me to make sure that it gets done properly and that the right decisions get made.
What excites you about the MAVEN mission?
The most-important science questions that we are asking today about Mars deal with the nature of the Martian climate, how it has changed over time, whether conditions ever allowed life to exist there (either at the surface or in the subsurface), and whether there could be life there today. MAVEN won’t answer the question about life, but it will answer the question about the how environment has changed over time. This is a very important part of the puzzle. We’ve had a Mars program for the last two decades, and the many spacecraft that we’ve sent to Mars have allowed us to build up a tremendous understanding of the planet and to frame the questions that we are asking today. MAVEN will fill in a very big gap in our understanding of the planet by exploring the upper atmosphere and its influence on the Martian environment. I’m excited for how MAVEN will contribute to our broad understanding of Mars. And I’m also excited that we’re providing one step along the path of answering questions about whether life ever existed on Mars!
Where did you go to school?
I did my undergraduate work at UCLA. I started out as a physics major, but realized that we were learning tools but not applying them. I took a junior-level course in planetary science, and from then on was hooked! My professor was building a science instrument that was on the Viking spacecraft that were being launched to Mars in 1975, and I was lucky enough to work with him as an undergraduate on that mission. Everything that I have done since then follows from that experience.
I did my graduate work at the California Institute of Technology, and received my degree in Planetary Sciences in 1982. The research for my dissertation involved understanding the geology of the surface, the seasonal behavior of the atmosphere, and the coupling between the two. Again, that paved the way for everything that has followed, as I’m still working on the Mars atmosphere and surface on all timescales, and on the implications for possible life.
How did you become interested in science/engineering?
I’ve always been interested in science and in space. It’s hard to know how one gets pointed in a particular direction. But I believe (with some 50 years of hindsight) that it was sitting in front of the TV as a 6-year-old, watching the countdowns for the launch of the first Mercury astronauts in 1961 and 1962, that got me excited about space.
How did you come to work for NASA or your organization?
In addition to being the Principal Investigator on MAVEN, I’m a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was hired here when I received my degree, to work as a post-doctoral research associate in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics on Mars research and analyzing data from the Solar Mesosphere Explorer earth-orbiting spacecraft. I’ve been working in LASP ever since then, now for almost 30 years, and have a joint appointment with the Department of Geological Sciences.
The thrill of being in a University environment is that you can point your research in any direction and pursue different exciting problems. I’ve been able to “remake” myself a few times so far during my career. I started out doing research in planetary science. I became interested in the “life in the universe” questions, and started up CU’s program in astrobiology that integrates across all of the relevant disciplines. And I was able to change directions again and to propose to lead a spacecraft mission.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to spend time with my family, I’ve become a fanatic about skiing, and I seem to spend a lot of time washing dishes!
Nancy N. Jones
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.