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Meet: Steve Wall

Advanced Projects Design Team Leader
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California


What I Do

I do a variety of things, all of which are connected with research on space missions. Much of my time is spent leading a team of engineers and scientists called the Advanced Projects Design Team. (At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where I work, this team is nicknamed "Team X.") Our team looks at good ideas for missions that can come from almost anywhere. We decide how much they might cost, what kind of launch they would need, how long they would take to build, and stuff like that so that the person who had the idea has the details he or she needs to get the idea approved. Right now we are working on a new mission to return samples from the surface of Mars to help answer the questions about past life on Mars.

I also am a member of the science team for the Cassini Radar Investigation. This team is building a special camera that will go to one of Saturn's moons called Titan and take pictures through the clouds to tell us what Titan's surface is like. We know that Titan has some of the same chemicals that make up living things here on Earth, so knowing about it will tell us more about how life starts out. Another thing I do is to work on new ways that will help us to do more space missions with less money here at JPL. I'm excited to think that we might be able to explore more new worlds with our new ways.

How I Got to Where I Am

I always liked to discover new things. I liked finding a new kind of bug in my yard, or finding a new path through the woods in my neighborhood. When my dad gave me a corner in our basement for my own, I started building things: boxes, wheels, whatever I could think of. Then I started to focus on what I liked best and what I seemed to be good at. By the time I got to high school I knew I wanted to be a scientist. At North Carolina State University I studied physics, then I went to the University of Rochester for a Masters degree in engineering. NASA offered me my first real job and I learned how to design space instruments. I was lucky enough to work on the Viking Mission, where I helped design and build the cameras that would take the first close-up pictures of Mars. I liked trying to explain the pictures and won a research contract with the Mars Data Analysis program that moved me to JPL.

Likes/Dislikes About Job

I like building teams and getting them together to accomplish things. I like to find mysteries and explain them. I really like being able to do field work when I go to far-away places to compare them with what we see from space or what we find on other planets. Mostly I enjoy knowing that I am part of a giant learning experience that just keeps going. What I like the least is getting distracted from all the little things that don't really matter. Sometimes I get surprised and find little things that really do contribute to the experience after all.

When I was a Kid

I liked exploring as a kid. Sometimes it was outdoor exploring, and sometimes it was wandering through a library or even through the encyclopedia looking for interesting stuff. It helped that I grew up in the country where there is always something that leads you down a new path. I can remember making maps of the neighborhood and trying to understand where the telephone pole wires went and came from. There were certainly times when I got into trouble from too much curiosity. I remember being very proud when I discovered how to attach a tape recorder to the telephone until the phone company called my parents and told them it was illegal! If you want to do research, keep looking around for what excites you the most, or what raises your curiosity the most. Then read about it and ask questions about it, always following the details that interest you.

Influences

It was my father and mother who first encouraged and even helped with the various "experiments" I did. Later, a friend in high school taught me that it is OK to branch out and try new, unconventional things, but that safety has to always come first. My physics professor Richard Patty showed me that doing research is just an advanced form of a child's play, and my first supervisor, Fred Huck, taught me how to let "reasonable [people] reasonably differ."

Personal

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I lived until I was 22 years old. I am now 48 and married to Kate Borger, who is a nurse. I love the outdoors. We live in Altadena, California, near a range of mountains where I hike and bicycle with Elise, our seven-year-old daughter. Elise also likes to swim, play soccer and take care of her hamster, Joey. Our family likes to go sailing together, and we also ski.


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