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Meet: Mark Adler

Mars Exploration Program Architect
Jet Propulsion Laboratory


My Journals

My Job

My job title at JPL is the Mars Exploration Program architect. The Mars program is all of our Mars exploration missions starting with the two being launched this year (1996) and continuing out (we hope) for another dozen or more years. As the "architect" I am responsible for laying out, with the help of a lot of other people, the sequence of missions to Mars to accomplish in concert our scientific exploration goals, and to make sure that the actual sequence of missions really do work in harmony toward those goals (imagine the missions as your family members and you can see that that's not easy). The word architect is somewhat new in its application to space missions, but after looking it up in the dictionary, I think it's appropriate. The first definition:

  • one who designs buildings and advises in their construction
is the usual one and is not what I do. (I'd probably get paid more if I did.) But the second definition:
  • one who plans and achieves a difficult objective
is right on. At least the planning part, since the achieving part comes later. But the objective is certainly difficult, which is a comprehensive exploration of another planet on a relatively limited budget.

What I Do

So what do I actually do? Lots of different things. I talk with the scientists to understand in detail what the scientific goals of Mars exploration should be, which of course change over time as we learn more about Mars. The recent observations about the Mars meteorite ALH 84001 are a good example of a recent change in our understanding. I talk with the spacecraft engineers to understand what's possible and with the technologists to hear what may be possible in the future, and when. I talk with managers to understand what these things will cost, and what resources we have available, or what resources may become available in the future. And teaming with all these people, we lay out possible plans for consideration by the scientists and by NASA Headquarters in order to decide what our next step will be. In general we will plan out many years of exploration in order to decide the next step. And then we'll do that all again for the following step, since it's likely that a lot of things have changed since the last step, including our understanding of Mars, the available resources, the technologies, international aspects, etc.

Another responsibility I have is to coordinate existing missions in the program and where they affect each other. Examples are assuring that the proper capability is put into early Mars orbiters that may be needed to support later Mars landers to get their data back to Earth. I also help the technologists understand what our future needs might be so that they can get started early on trying to develop those capabilities. I work with other missions and programs when there is some overlap in issues with the Mars program, such as combined technology development, or deep space communications resources used by many JPL missions.

A separate, but related task I have is as the mission architect for the first Mars sample return mission, in which we're going to bring Mars rocks, dirt and air back to Earth to study. Bringing that stuff back from Mars is not as easy as it sounds (and so again the second definition of architect applies). In this job I trade various approaches to the problem and direct teams in evaluating the approaches and in attacking the "tall tent poles" or major difficulties in particular approaches to getting the stuff back.

How I Got Here

I've never really thought of myself being in a "career" so I can't say I ever consciously decided on it. I've never done any of the "career planning" that people sometimes talk about. Instead I've just gone from school to school and job to job always directing myself to what I thought was interesting and fun. That's probably the key for me. If I'm doing something fun, I tend to do it well. If that's career planning, then it's very short-range planning. But it has worked for me (so far).

So any preparation for my job was accidental. Starting with college I got a B.A. degree in Mathematics from the University of Florida. I worked at U.F. for a while on various large and microcomputer jobs while working on my M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering. While at U.F. I did a lot of work on microcomputer applications, including consulting work on medical research applications.

From there I applied for three things. First was a job at Hughes Aircraft, a space contractor in Los Angeles; second was admission to the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech, to get a Ph.D. in physics; and third was a Howard Hughes Fellowship, from Hughes Aircraft, which would pay for the Ph.D. I was accepted to Caltech and I was offered a job at Hughes. I told them "Well, I plan to go to Caltech, but I've applied for this fellowship, so if I get that I could still work for you in the summers and maybe when I graduate." (Working at Hughes in the summers was part of the fellowship.) So, they made sure I got the fellowship and I accepted the fellowship and the job offer. Not a bad deal at all.

I got my Ph.D. in Physics from Caltech, where my thesis title was "The Persistence of Charm in the Relentless Decay of Beauty." It was about the decay of a certain type of subatomic particle, the Beauty-Charm meson into either a Charm-Charm meson or a Strange-Beauty meson (sounds like real life, eh?). Since then I haven't done much work on theoretical particle physics. See, I told you my preparation was accidental. You might also note that my B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. were all in different areas. Another sign of wandering. But not all those who wander are lost. (I stole that from Tolkien.) Turns out that my Ph.D. has proven invaluable in my later work with the very strong physics background it has given me. This is important to just about everything in the space program, as well as strong understanding of statistical inference from limited data (which is how you do science with just a handful of sightings of a new subatomic particle).

While I was working on my Ph.D. I was also working at the Hughes Space and Communications Group in the summers and sometimes a day a week during the school year. That work covered a wide range of things, including the effects of X-ray bursts (from nuclear weapons blasts) on satellite cables and electronics, the development of very high-speed error-correcting codes for communications, and an automobile antitheft key! (Hughes was bought by General Motors somewhere in there). After I got my Ph.D. I went on to work full-time at Hughes, where I did research and development on digital image and video compression techniques for use in such things as direct broadcast TV.

After about a year and half of that, I noticed what I was actually doing. I was working on a technology to inexpensively bring hundreds of channels of utter drivel into every home in the U.S. and beyond (heard of DirecTV? They've since sold millions.) I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. What I wanted to do was something a little more gratifying, like space exploration instead of exploitation (there's nothing wrong with exploitation--it just wasn't what I wanted to do). Hughes Aircraft had been involved in space exploration before, but while I was there the work on Galileo probe had ended, they didn't win Mars Observer, and they stopped bidding on NASA projects. So I left.

I went to NASA's JPL (which is run by Caltech) where they do almost nothing but space exploration. Can't go wrong there. So here I am.

Most of my time at JPL has been working on the Cassini mission to Saturn. When I was offered the job, it was actually a job on the CRAF/Cassini mission, which was to be two very similar spacecraft built at the same time to save money and go on two rather different missions (CRAF stands for Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Flyby). However between the time I was offered the job and the time I started, CRAF was cancelled. In fact I was lucky that they still honored my job offer after that! (I found out a few years later that they actually had a meeting to decide if they were going to honor job offers made before the cancellation.)

My work on the Cassini mission was project engineering, which is solving problems that cut across the entire project, such as issues between the spacecraft and the ground system, or between science and the spacecraft, or between the mission design and science. That job included planning the activities of the 11-year mission, in which I led the Mission Engineering team. I also worked on several aspects of a detailed analysis to show that there is no credible way for Cassini's nuclear material (it's nuclear powered) to accidentally hit the Earth when we fly Cassini around the inner solar system for gravity assists on the way to Saturn. That work is one part of the information the U.S. President will need in order to sign the authorization to launch Cassini. Turns out that only the President can authorize a launch of nuclear material. Makes sense.

As the planning work was completed and actual assembly of the Cassini spacecraft began, my function on Cassini began to wane so I looked around for new work at JPL. I was lucky enough to hook up with the Mars project office when they were just beginning to tackle the problem of how to bring stuff back from Mars, around February (1996).

Why I'm Here and Not Somewhere Else

The thing I like best about my job is that I get to work with a lot of different people in a lot of different disciplines: scientists, electrical engineers, propulsion designers, spacecraft operators, managers, etc. I enjoy learning about all those aspects and trying to integrate them.

The thing I like least about my job (today anyway as I write this) is a sometimes unending stream of requests from NASA Headquarters for all-too-hasty responses to all-too-important questions. Hasty answers are dangerous in that not everything can be taken into account, and may lead to not-so-great decisions that we then have to live with.

Me as a Kid

As a kid I always liked math, science and learning in general. On the side I built and launched model rockets in elementary school, built dozens of electronics projects in junior high and high school (paid for by fixing televisions), and did lots of computer programming in high school, as well as designing and programming computer data acquisition systems for medical research. I was in a summer science program through high school, including the last summer in a laboratory program where I did biochemistry research at the University of Miami Medical School, successfully getting fatty membrane proteins into solution in water using a sequence of alcohols. It was at that medical school that I made some contacts leading to the data acquisition work.

I was following the same accidental career philosophy then that I follow now. I just did what seemed fun. The model rockets had me learning trigonometry while I was in fifth grade in order to determine their altitude. That led me to learn some more math on my own. The model rockets also led me to electronics when I got interested in instrumented payloads, like a radio to send the sounds of the flight. The electronics got me into computers when the first computer kit showed up in "Popular Electronics." And so on. I don't remember ever wanting to "be" something--I just remember wanting to do different things. I guess I'm the same now.

Advice

My advice to someone who might like to follow my or someone else's path: don't. Follow your own weird path, which is determined by what you think is fun and interesting. That's what will allow you to excel, which in turn will allow you to continue to choose your own path instead of having it chosen for you.

Whose Fault am I?

I can't think of any person who influenced me to pursue my roundabout path, except me. I remember always being interested in the space program, starting around the time of Apollo. I guess what impressed me the most about that was "Hey, those guys are really *doing* something!", where "those guys" were the whole space program. Somehow I understood even then what amazing things humans can do if a whole bunch of them really want to.

Some Personal Stuff

I grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida, living there for my first 18 years. I now live in Pasadena, California with my almost five-year old son Joshua, his mom Diana, and our dog Carl (a 40-kg German Shepherd/Great Dane mix). I like bicycling (touring and commuting to work), piloting small planes, Shotokan Karate, computer programming, electronics tinkering, model rocketry, singing and local amateur theatre (emphasis on amateur). When I'm in Florida to visit, I like to go scuba diving. I bake a killer cheesecake and enjoy cooking vegetarian meals. Someday I'd like to explore space firsthand.


Learn more from my Web chats
January 29, l998

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