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Meet: Steve Lee

Hubble Space Telescope Mars Team, Surface Expert
Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics
University of Colorado, Boulder


My Job

I'm a research associate with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado in Boulder. This position doesn't require me to teach, so I can spend all of my time on research (and on writing grant proposals to get funding to support my research!). My main interests involve studies of Martian dust storms, and how moving all this dust around changes the appearance of Mars over time.

I'm a member of a team using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to observe Mars; we actually were the first "outside observers" (not part of the teams that built the telescope) to use HST back in late 1990. I'm the "image processing guru" for our team -- I take the raw images and apply lots of computer processing to them to get them into forms that are useful for our research (color images and maps, primarily). Over the past couple of years, we've been seeing lots of water-ice clouds on Mars, giving us clues that the Martian climate is much more variable than previously thought. Our most recent HST images, taken in late-April 1999, detected a huge cyclone near Mars' north pole. You can find a number of our HST/Mars pictures, maps, and movies on the Web at:

http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pr/1999/22/index.html
http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/PR/97/24.html
http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/PR/97/23.html
http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/PR/97/15.html

I'm also a team member on the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) -- the camera system that is aboard the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) spacecraft. This mission was launched in December 1998 and will go into Mars orbit in September 1999. MCO will start returning science data in March 2000, and should operate for at least one Mars year (687 Earth days). MARCI will provide daily "weather maps" of Mars, as well as high-resolution color images of the surface. For more details on MCO and MARCI, check out: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/index.html

Finally, I'm working on MarsQuest -- a museum exhibit about Mars that will begin touring the country in mid-2000. I'm the science content coordinator, and am responsible for deciding what topics will be included in the exhibit and making sure the content is scientifically accurate. We plan to have a virtual-reality simulation of the Pathfinder landing site, as well as take visitors to several locations on Mars (the North Polar Cap, the Valles Marineris canyon, the Olympus Mons volcano...). MarsQuest will be a great experience for visitors -- you should feel like you've actually visited the surface of Mars! I'm an admitted "Mars nut," so having this opportunity to get the "Mars story" out to the public is a dream come true! For more about MarsQuest, go to: http://www-ssi.colorado.edu/Outreach/TravSciExhibits/MarsQuest/1.html

My Career Path

From the time I was in grade school I was interested in airplanes and space exploration, so it seemed like a career in engineering was the way to go. I went to college at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) and got a BS and M.Eng. in engineering; both involved studying a lot of math and physics. When I was a senior (1975-1976), the Viking missions had just been launched to Mars and I got seriously bitten by the "planetary geology bug." After finishing my engineering studies, I continued in graduate school at Washington University (St. Louis, MO) and got a MA in Earth & Planetary Sciences (this involved a lot of catch-up work in geology and geophysics). Finally, I ended up back at Cornell, where I finally got a PhD in Planetary Geology. I spent two years at Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ) as a researcher, then arrived at LASP in Boulder in 1986. So, I've been studying Mars for more than 20 years and am overjoyed to see new missions being sent to the Red Planet!

Favorite/Least Favorite Job Activities

Without a doubt, my favorite thing is getting my hands on new Mars data and tearing into it to see what it has to tell us. In the case of my HST work, it's always a thrill to finally get the processing done, and to be the first one to lay eyes on a new picture of Mars. It's also exciting when I can make some of the pictures available to the public, and can see that people who don't think about Mars for a living are also excited by the results. In the future, I'm looking forward to operating the MARCI camera; it was exciting to see the MCO launched last December, and it'll be mind-boggling to have a piece of equipment I've actually worked on orbiting Mars!

The biggest "downside" of research is all the time it takes to write proposals for funding. Sometimes, it seems that almost as much time is needed to write the proposals as is available to do the actual research! All in all, though, the excitement of doing the work far outweighs the drawbacks.

Growing Up

I think I was always interested in how things worked -- most toys got taken apart and put back together many times before they actually got "played with." Once I was old enough not to hurt myself, I started building and flying model rockets and gas-powered model airplanes. I was always building plastic models (planes, cars, boats...), as well. I probably read every science fiction and astronomy book to be found in my public and school libraries. It was a real struggle for my teachers and parents to get me to pay attention to other topics, such as history and English and such. Once I got to high school, I also spent a lot of time working with photography (both the camera and the darkroom ends of things); that led me to be the photographer for the high school newspaper and yearbook, which probably did more than anything to expand my interests beyond "space stuff."

My advice to students is to get as broad an education as possible early on -- you'll have time in college to start specializing. If you want to pursue a career in space science, certainly you'll need lots of math and physics as a prelude to either engineering or astronomy or planetary geology. Probably the most important thing as you think about a career is to find something you really enjoy, then try to follow your heart!

Influences

I was in elementary school during the early days of manned and planetary space exploration. My parents and teachers seemed to understand how interested I was in this -- I would often tell them I was "going to be sick the next day" when a launch was scheduled, and they'd look the other way while I stayed home glued to the TV. I'm sure all this indulgence helped me find the path I followed through school. I also had an uncle who was always letting me read his "National Geographic" collection whenever I visited -- this got me interested in things in our world other than rockets and airplanes.

When I was a senior at Cornell, I did an independent study class on Mars with Prof. Joe Veverka. At that time, about 9000 pictures of Mars had been returned from the Mariner 9 mission; Joe told me to take a few weeks to look at ALL of the pictures as my introduction to Mars. After that, I was hooked! Viking was arriving at Mars just after that school year ended, so the following year I started my transformation from an engineer into a planetary geologist. Joe was a great teacher and he ultimately served as my advisor during graduate school.

More About Me

I grew up in Butte, Montana, then made the big jump to upstate New York during most of my college years. I've been in the Boulder area since 1986. My wife and I decided to get married after we'd gone to Kennedy Space Center to see the space shuttle launch that put HST in orbit; we've been married for eight years, and have gone back to KSC for each of the shuttle launches to repair and service HST (sort of a family tradition to see a rocket launch every two years or so...). She's a microbiologist (works in a hospital laboratory in Denver), so we cover all the bases -- from germs to planets! We both enjoy going to movies and plays every week or two. We have two crazy cats -- Zippy and Katmandu. Much of my free time is spent working in our yard and garden -- I guess I'm a farmer at heart!


Learn more from my Web chats
June 17, l999
January 7, l999


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