"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Canyon Country resident Thomas R. Gavin, Associate Director for Flight Projects and Mission Success at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The interview was conducted Feb. 10. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You've got two rovers on Mars that were supposed to last three months. Here we are, 13 months later, and they're still going. Has the mission exceeded your expectations?
Gavin: I think it exceeded everyone's expectations, even mine. I was pretty confident that we would succeed with at least one of these. We had a very, very robust design and a very good team. When they both landed, I guessed that they would work for three or four months, but they continue to excel.
Signal: Still going strong?
Gavin: I'll tell you a funny story about that. We figured (they) would run out of power because dust would accumulate on the surface of the solar panels, which would reduce the power and the vehicles would not survive the Martian winter. On Mars they have dust devils like we have Canyon Country, and a dust devil came along and cleaned off the solar panel ... sand-blasted the red dust of Mars off the panels.
Signal: How long do you think they'll last?
Gavin: Probably right now we would say we're now into the Martian spring, and they're in very good condition. There's no indication the most likely cause of failure of the vehicles at this point would be a solder joint breaking from thermal stress going (from) cold Martian night, hot Martian day, equipment on that constant thermal cycle. Not unlike if you took a paper clip and you worked it (back and forth) and it got hot and then cold.
Signal: The rovers solar powered, so the batteries won't run out?
Gavin: Their batteries aren't going to run out, no.
Signal: What have they found? Didn't one of them recently find a meteorite?
Gavin: (The Opportunity rover) was going along and found on the surface a meteorite, an iron meteorite, which was really a very, very exciting discovery, because it came from some other world. To serendipitously find it on the surface of Mars while you're making a trek across the plain was quite interesting.
Signal: The rovers are supposed to be finding signs of water?
Gavin: Yes. The whole theme of the Mars program is "follow the water." If you look at the landing sites Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum these are sites where orbiters have detected minerals which are a product of water salts, called hematite. In fact, the rover Spirit landed in the crater probably downstream of old Martian water flows that you can see from orbit. Opportunity landed in what they call Eagle Crater, dead on into the middle of the crater. When the cameras came on and you saw the bedrock, the scientists were very, very excited. There they found evidence of past water. They are very confident they have found that.
Opportunity is now trekking across Meridiani Planum. It visited the Endurance Crater. If you ever go onto the JPL Web site and see the pictures of Endurance Crater, they're awesome. It went and looked at its heat shield a few weeks ago, and it's now continuing its trek.
Spirit is climbing the Husband Hills. Husband Hills get their name from the (commander) of (Space Shuttle) Columbia (Rick Husband). One little of piece of history that most people don't know is that on the back of the two antennas on the spacecraft, on both Spirit and Opportunity, was a memorial to the Columbia astronauts. That's where you got the Columbia Memorial Station. Our flight team, led by Matt Wallace of Stevenson Ranch, worked out this beautiful memorial and cleared it with the people in Washington.
Signal: It's understood that you can't have life as we know it without water, but conversely, is there a general belief that wherever there was water, there was necessarily life?
Gavin: No. That is not the conclusion. The water could have been there only in a very, very short period of time. (Maybe) there was never an opportunity; the temperatures weren't right; the other ingredients of organics were not right, and (there) may have never been life on Mars.
Signal: Recognizing that not everything goes right, the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander were lost in 2000. How important was the success of the Mars Exploration Rover mission to the future of NASA's Mars program?
Gavin: If you go back to the spring of 2000, we had lost the Climate Orbiter, we had lost the Polar Lander. We got to watch that on "film at 11." We got to watch that on Jay Leno. Morale at JPL was in the pits. Everybody was feeling very bad. We took responsibility for it. The 2003 opportunity was the best opportunity in 55,000 years. You recall last summer, Mars (was) very close (to Earth), and that was the best opportunity to go to Mars.
The issue was, what's the best way to do that? With NASA's participation, we came up with an idea of sending these two rovers and do it in 37 months, which is really an accelerated schedule. It was a very difficult task. People asked me, why did we agree to do that? And I said, look. This will have great scientific merit. We have a science payload that would do very well. We have the capability at JPL, and it will energize the entire science community if we succeed.
To a degree, we bet the farm, but we put a lot of engineering talent and a lot of effort into it.
Signal: There have been mixed reviews about "better, faster, cheaper" programs. Are we putting enough money into them?
Gavin: No. If you look at the conclusions of the failure review board the review boards that look at the failures of the two Mars missions they were faster; they were cheaper; but the "better" part was left out. There was just not enough money (or) attention of detail in those missions. That mantra "better, faster, cheaper" isn't around anymore. It's "mission success."
Signal: Mission success, of course, being part of your title. That was a newly created position after the two failures?
Gavin: That's right. After the two failures, I was asked by Dr. Charles Elachi, when he became (JPL) director, to be a part of the director's office, totally focused on flight projects and mission success of the flight projects, and developed all the requirements to make sure these projects succeed.
It's not just spending money. It's doing the right things the right way. We've been very successful in that. We've achieved a cultural change at JPL that all the project people and the design people at JPL bought into. You see it throughout the laboratory. Morale at the laboratory is very, very high.
Signal: With your title, it sounds like you do all the fun stuff, while the other two higher-ups handle personnel and paperwork?
Gavin: Well, Charles Elachi worries about what goes on in Washington, and right now he's working on the NASA strategic roadmap where the space program ought to go in the next decades. The deputy director is Gen. (Eugene) Tattini he's a three-star Air Force general, retired, and he worries about the operation of the institution. And I worry about the work being done in the projects.
So, for the director's office, I oversee the work being done for the projects and make sure that they follow what we want them to do. With the entire design community at JPL and the project community, we developed what we call flight project practices and design principles. And that's, in a very simple way, "this is the way we work." We got everybody to buy in at JPL that this is the way we work. It has really effected a great change in the way we do these jobs.
Signal: So yes, you're in charge of all the fun stuff.
Gavin: At JPL we have a Mars Directorate. Currently we have, certainly, (Spirit) and Opportunity on the surface of Mars. We have two projects in orbit around Mars Odyssey, and Mars Global Surveyor. We have in development the Phoenix Project, which goes back to the poles of Mars. And then we have the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Phoenix will launch in '07; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will launch in '09. That's in what we call the Mars Directorate.
Then we have a Solar System Directorate, where we have "new frontiers" missions such as Moonrise, a mission to go to the moon, land on the moon, grab some samples of areas where they think there was water, and come back to the Earth. We have missions to Jupiter. We also have, certainly, the Cassini mission.
Cassini has a special place in my heart. While this job sounds good with the title, the ideal job at JPL is to be the flight system manager or the spacecraft system manager. This job has a great title; the pay's not bad; but to be in charge, to oversee the development of a flight spacecraft like (SCV residents) Richard Cook (and) Barry Goldstein (do) they really have the better job. They get to see the vehicle come together; they get to make the design decisions. Those are better jobs.
Signal: You oversaw the Cassini spacecraft?
Gavin: I had that job on Cassini, so I was the one down at the Cape (Canaveral), earphones on, headset on, saying, "OK, we're ready to go." Which is the job we give to our project managers.
Signal: Now we see Cassini sending back photos of the Titan moon?
Gavin: Cassini was a terrific success. It was not a "better, faster, cheaper." It was called a flagship project. A former NASA administrator called it Battlestar Galactica. He didn't like it too much. But he actually came around. He was out to see us a few weeks ago and was very impressed with what Cassini has done.
Cassini was done in partnership with the Europeans, where they built the Huygens probe. We were essentially a bus that delivered the Huygens probe it doesn't sound very glamorous to a point in space and time where we release it and send it on its way, and then the probe goes on to the moon Titan and then we get the data back and we relay it back to the Earth.
Signal: Does Cassini have capabilities that the Hubbell telescope doesn't have?
Gavin: Hubbell is designed in a different way. These missions are designed for close in-situ observation, where Hubbell is deep-space. You can produce very, very high quality pictures of Jupiter in great detail from the orbiting assets like Cassini, where Hubbell can give you a global view, which we didn't have before.
Hubbell takes you where NASA's going, which is I like this phrase "the search for the blue-water planet around another star." I mean, that's the ultimate. NASA has the James Webb space telescope in development down in Redondo Beach; it's being managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center; and we have what we call the Terrestrial Planet Finder. We have also have a project in development now called Kepler. Both of those projects are designed to find Earth-size planets around other stars. Kepler will tell us whether or not there are planets of that size; Terrestrial Planet Finder will tell us what the spectrum of that star is. Do you see oxygen, carbon? That's another part of work that we do, which is astronomy and astrophysics. That's really exciting stuff.
Signal: Don't you oversee some other telescope projects that are coming up?
Gavin: We have, for example, in a few weeks we will launch CloudSat, which is the radar mapper for weather. We will launch the Reconnaissance Orbiter to Mars. I know that your father used to work for Lockheed, and up in Sunnyvale, Lockheed used to develop a spacecraft for a government agency we won't talk about as a reconnaissance oribter, but this Reconnaissance Orbiter's going to go to Mars. It's a big eye in the sky. And that one you can talk about. It's fun. It's an interesting place.
Signal: Tell us about the Galaxy Evolution Explorer.
Gavin: GALEX was a very, very small spacecraft, what we call a small explorer. It was a CalTech project, headed by a CalTech professor. Remember that JPL employees are employees of CalTech. GALEX is to look at the newborn stars in galaxies which radiate in the ultra-violet, so GALEX had a series of ultra-violet detectors and has made amazing discoveries in the ultra-violet (range) of young galaxies which are still birthing stars.
About five months later (Aug. 25, 2003), we launched the Space Infrared Telescope Facility. There will be some amazing news coming out from that project in the next few months. But SIRTF looks at all the galaxies and planetary systems in the infrared, looking for planetary disks. If you see the stuff on Discovery about how planets are formed of planetary disks SIRTF's making some very significant work in that area.
Signal: Why do want to look at new-forming stars? What does that tell us?
Gavin: It's science, OK? It's the search for knowledge. It's just the search for knowledge. Not understanding where this place came from and where it's going if you abandon the search for knowledge let me give you a great analogy.
In the 15th Century, half the ships that went down the Thames to the New World were lost at sea. OK? Another analogy. The greatest explorers in the 15th and 16th Century were the Portuguese. They had the great explorers. They made a whole series of discoveries. They pulled back a little bit.
We don't want to pull back. We want to expand knowledge. We want to cooperate with the Europeans, but we want to expand knowledge.
Signal: When President Bush made to his "to the moon and Mars and beyond" speech in January 2004, he said he wanted the United States to remain at the forefront of space exploration. What has been going on in the last 12 months? Have you seen a renewed commitment?
Gavin: Oh, yeah. Very much so. But I want to go back to what Bush said, and what was behind him.
His view was not exploration for exploration's sake, but what it will do to the education and technical infrastructure of this country, to improve education in this country, to increase interest in scientific engineering endeavors in this country.
We're no longer a manufacturing society. We operate on technology. We have to continue to hone our skills. The space program and some of what the president wants to do with his exploration initiative is designed to foster that. Because to do these types of missions, we need a very well educated population, a good cadre of people.
But back to your question, the exploration systems directorate in NASA is very aggressively pursuing the development of the crew exploration vehicle. In fact, they're now in the procurement of the crew exploration vehicle. There is an intense roadmapping activity going on within NASA, looking at solar system exploration, the astronomy and physics; they look for other star systems with planets like the Earth, as well as human exploration.
And they have not said this is not a, "land a man on the moon before the end of this decade and bring him back" that's not what the president said. He said we need a very well-thought out, multi-year plan, looking 10, 20, 30 years (into the future), and what's the roadmap to do that? All kinds of activity at NASA is going on in that way. In fact, I'm on one of the roadmap committees. I'm going back to Washington next week.
Signal: Is there a commitment of dollars?
Gavin: If you look at the fiscal '05 budget, the Congress a lot of thanks to (former NASA Director) Sean O'Keefe, the support of (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and (Rep. John) Culberson and both sides of the Congress there's very, very good support on both sides of the Congress. The NASA budget went up about 5 percent. For (fiscal year) 2006, in the budget the president just released, while most agencies got a cut, NASA didn't get what was originally planned, but they still got a 2.5-percent increase above inflation. Very few government agencies had that kind of an increase.
So, there is every evidence that in the Congress and in the White House, there is great support for the nation's space program. It's our job to make sure these systems work, because we serve at (the expense of) the taxpayer's money.
Signal: You've been at JPL since 1962 and Canyon Country since 1967
Gavin: I've decided to hang around.
Signal: There was a whole generation that got its inspiration from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. But not you, of course. How did you get interested in aerospace?
Gavin: In 1950 a movie came out you can go look it up it was called "Destination Moon." I was 10 years old. I went and I saw that movie. It cost me nine cents. And I said, "That's what I want to do, more than anything else." After that point, I was hooked on space. All through my teenage years, I'd buy every book I could on missiles and rockets and engineering.
I went to a fairly good school, Villanova, and I got a science degree. I was fortunate enough to be hired by JPL when the space program just started. So I was there at the beginning.
Signal: You got in at the front end and you've been there the whole time.
Gavin: Some people have said to me, "That stuff is never going to last." They're all retired now.
Signal: Tell us about JPL. What's the relationship with CalTech?
Gavin: You go back to the mid '30s, and Theodore von Karman was the president of CalTech. They formed what they called the GALCIT, Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. Part of the students of that laboratory were experimenting with rockets in the late '30s.
When the war broke out, the Army came along and said to CalTech, "Hey. We need you to apply the skills of this institution to support the nation's war effort." So, JPL took on the task of developing you'll probably recall the jet-assisted take-offs, the rockets helping airplanes take off from short runways. That was the work that JPL was doing.
In 1944, it was officially organized. After that, they worked for the Department of the Army until 1958. JPL developed the field artillery missile for the Army and developed the Sergeant missile, which was a precursor of the Pershings. In 1958, after Sputnik went up, and that caught everybody's attention, at that time JPL was still part of the Army. JPL and what was the Redstone Arsenal, which was another part of the Army, both had the experience and had vehicles ready to go. JPL had a payload ready to go and the Army had a vehicle ready to go, and we had an upper stage. So we went the leaders of the laboratory at that time, and (Wernher) Von Braun, who was running the Redstone Arsenal went to the White House and said, "We can do this in 90 days."
On Jan. 31, 1958, Explorer I was launched. It was a JPL payload (with a) Marshall which is now Marshall Space Flight Center Redstone missile, and the American space age was born.
Signal: And the relationship today between JPL and NASA
Gavin: At that time it was at CalTech, and it still is. There are 10 NASA centers. Nine out of 10 NASA centers are civil service centers, where the employees are civil service employees. At JPL, all the employees, except for a small cadre of government employees, are employees of the California Institute of Technology. CalTech operates the laboratory for the government as an FFRDC, which is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center.
Signal: Is the state of California a player in terms of money or anything else?
Gavin: No. CalTech is a private institution, and as a private institution it operates this for the federal government.
Signal: Are there JPL technologies that have been translated to the private sector?
Gavin: Yes. A lot of our developments in microelectronics and very small detectors have found their way into the private sector. A lot of our software systems, systems analysis, have found themselves into the private sector. We publish more (NASA) technology briefs many are done by JPL people. So, we put a lot of technology out.
Did we invent the microwave oven? No, we didn't do that. We develop the very core technologies that then get applied to those kinds of things medical applications, communications applications, computer applications, a lot of those you can trace back. There are JPL contributions in that area, and space program contributions.
Look, I mean, the whole modern electronics of hand-held telephones and all those things have their origins in the need for the space program to be lightweight and microminiaturized. That was a driver on the economics of it. I think that's kind of what Bush has in mind as part of his exploration initiative.
Signal: Will you be there to make sure we get someone to the moon and Mars?
Gavin: Yeah, I will. I have a very exciting job. It's not to say I'm going to work full-time all the way out; I turned 65 a few months ago, but they don't seem to be in any hurry to get rid of me.
I came home one day and I said to my wife, "You know, if I retire, I have a lot of good ideas of how we can reorganize the house." She's a painter; we can straighten out all (her) paints. She didn't think that was a very good idea.
Signal: You have some kids and grandkids in town?
Gavin: Yes. I have 16 grandchildren. Thirteen of them live in this valley. I'm very fortunate that three out of my four children live in this valley. One lives all the way down in La CaŅada. ... I have four freshmen grandchildren at Canyon High School. One was the freshman quarterback on the freshman team; threw 15 touchdown passes as a freshman. Eat your heart out, Herrington.
I have son who teaches at Golden Valley. He's the science program director at Golden Valley. He taught at Valencia, taught physics and other programs at Valencia. I have a granddaughter who graduated last spring from CalArts and just finished up a Jodie Foster movie; she got a degree in costume design.
So, I've infected this whole valley, and we have a lot more coming. But I love the Santa Clarita Valley.
Signal: What brought you here in the first place?
Gavin: I had three children and I didn't have a lot of money. I was tooling down Soledad Canyon Road one day. We thought we'd just go look at the area. (We) saw this sign, "House (for) Rent, Option to Buy," ... up in SkyBlue Mesa.
You'll probably find this unbelievable: The price of the house was $21,000, and 100 percent of your rent, after one year, would go to the down payment of the house. Went up, looked at a house, found a nice house, came back, I said, "The house doesn't have a front lawn." The guy said, "You drive a hard bargain. I'll put a lawn in." The rest is history.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.