Science Team Co-Investigator, Deep Impact
|Pete's Bio||Up Close and Personal|
What's the coolest thing about the Deep Impact mission?
Watching an impact experiment much bigger in size (and velocity) than we can do in the laboratory. It's like the ultimate experiment. But even neater, we don't exactly know what's going to happen. This is the reason we do experiments: there are so many complex processes happening at different scales: from the heating of a dust grain to the excavation of an entire crater to making a new coma around a comet. And to make it even better, it reminds me of my excitement when I photographed two comets in 1957 while in Junior High (middle school) in Illinois and later looking into the big sky in Nebraska. This brings it all back.
Where do you work and why do you like it there?
I am a Professor at Brown University. This is a great place to work because it's not like "work." First, I get to do my research while working with very bright students, both undergraduate and graduate. This university-college environment always rejuvenates me. Second, I have colleagues and facilities across the university. So, I am able to explore very different research topics or approaches while learning what other people do. Third, I get to teach (from undergraduate to graduate levels) fun courses including: planning a mission to Mars, astrobiology, extinction of the dinosaurs, and impact cratering. And fourth, I get to share all this with the teachers and kids through the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant program as well as the Northeast Planetary Data Center.
How did you end up working in space exploration?
Believe it or not, my professional "career" started on an airplane trip. I sat next to a gentleman who asked to look at an article I was reading. The article was about the Apollo program and I was already quite interested in what was going to happen in the next couple of years. It turned out that this gentleman (J. Hoover Mackin) was actually working on the Apollo program including training the astronauts and helping to design some of the geologic tools. He invited me to his office where he let me look at new photographs of the Moon coming from the Lunar Orbiter mission. So, one night a week I would carry home a 75-pound box of photos and pour through them with a magnifier. This was for fun because I was also starting graduate school. I had no idea that this would eventually become my Ph.D. thesis and my career.
Who in your life inspired you?
Sounds corny, but it's true. Many people inspired me at different stages of my life. But there are four who could be mentioned. First, my parents who let me chase my dreams and allowed me to go to a great undergraduate college (Carleton College in Minnesota). My father was a scientist (biochemist) and my mother was an artist. My father had a natural curiosity about everything and knew how to transfer that curiosity (a natural teacher who worked in industry). He took me to observatories, went on fossil hunts, and even practiced surgery on the fish we caught. My mother had an incredible ability to see and transfer anything to a pad or canvas (incredible talent). My early memories include drawing space ships and dinosaurs with her on the porch in Indiana. The two approaches are actually related: both visualize and both interpret. My parents' dedication to education outside the classroom and appreciation for the "usefulness of useless information" remains inspiring. The third person was my third and fourth grade teacher (Miss Jackson in Illinois) who loved science and encouraged my curiosity. She wanted a baby blue Cadillac (the time of big tail fins). I would have gotten it for her but my allowance just wasn't enough. I don't know what happened to her but I still carry with me her enthusiasm. And the fourth person to inspire me is my wife, who understands the dedication necessary for pursuing science because it is so similar to the dedication and hard work needed for studying and doing art (another artist in the family). Without that, it would be impossible to enjoy (or even do) what I do.
What do you do in your spare time?
My wife and I are renovating an old house and we enjoy studying the history of photography, especially the equipment they used. Together, we have given talks and written articles about the role of astronomy in photography and the history of 19th century American lens makers. This combines both of our interests (photography and science) and provides a wide window into the past. Neither of us particularly enjoyed history in school. But now we have found great fun in making connections to the past through this theme. It takes us to the libraries and basements of great museums across the world.
Do you have a yet-to-be achieved life goal?
Orbit the Moon and make it to my 50th consecutive Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. The first will not happen but I am planning on the second. When the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, I was more interested in what they saw out their windows than what they were picking up.
How scientifically/technically oriented were you as a young person?
I was always interested in science, whether blowing up anthills (can't talk about it) or watching Mr. Dan Q. Posin and his cat "Midnight" on public television (WTTW) about astronomy in the mid 50's. But a turning point was earlier as a child when I had to spend time in an oxygen tent due to severe asthma. I couldn't run, couldn't play, and couldn't even walk up the stairs. But I could read about the planets and memorize all the facts available. And it allowed me to read deeper without stopping because of "assignments." This internalizing carried through. I got a small telescope in 2nd grade, a bigger telescope in 5th grade, and made a giant telescope in 11th grade. In high school, I was among the founding members of the Prairie Astronomy Club in Lincoln, Nebraska (still going strong, by the way). And of course, did the science fairs too. So, I guess I was a geek... but not completely. In high school, I was able to convince my girlfriend's mother to let me stay out all night with her watching the Perseid meteor shower (this was in the early 60's, you understand). And that's all we did!! We've now been married for 40 years.
What is your position on the Deep Impact mission and what do you do?
I'm one of the Co-Investigators on the Science Team. Along with my students, I have been doing impact experiments at the NASA Ames Vertical Gun Range in order to predict what we might observe during the encounter. This will help us interpret the nature of the comet from the initial flash, pattern of debris coming out of the crater, and final shape of the crater.
What was your favorite book when you were a child and why?
There were actually two: Cosmic View in 40 steps and a book (translation) by Heinrich Schliemann about discovering ancient cities. It was that process of discovery that captured my imagination.
What did you want to become when you grew up?
My friends in Junior high called me "Satellite Sam." I always wanted to be an astronomer, geologist, or artist. In a sense, I found a way to combine all three. I played in the sandbox as a kid. I still do it but with a special high-speed gun.
If you weren't working in space exploration now, what might you be doing?
I know that I would be doing science; it's just too much fun to discover something that no one else has seen or thought of before.
What do you most want to learn from the Deep Impact mission?
I want to see what happens at a much larger scale than the experiments we've done in the laboratory. I also really want to know if the surface of a comet has a hard layer or a soft surface. And where are the volatiles (deep or shallow)? Are there strange molecules? Will the impact induce a chemical reaction? I could go on and on.
What advice do you have for students who wish to work in space exploration?
There is so much to do in this field: the science, technical writing, artistic rendering, digital animations, making the spacecraft, designing the electronics, media presentations, and on and on. It's a matter of matching your strengths with what you love to do. There are so many paths in which to get involved that the most important thing to remember is to allow yourself to dream and then follow your passions. If something gets in the way, work harder and find a way around the obstacles.