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Los Angeles Times Interview

Edward Stone

Guiding JPL Into a New Era of Deep Space Exploration

May 11, 1997|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft, deputy foreign editor of the Times, interviewed Edward C. Stone in his office at JPL

PASADENA — The Pathfinder spacecraft is more than halfway to a dramatic rendezvous with Mars. On July 4, it will dive through the Martian atmosphere trailing a parachute. Air bags will inflate to cushion its impact and, soon, it will be relaying panoramic images of the surface of Mars back to Earth.

Then a small rover called Sojourner, its solar cells coaxed to life by the sun, will leave Pathfinder and drive off onto the ancient Martian flood plain.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the creators of Pathfinder and Sojourner will be gathered around an indoor sandbox to watch scale mock-ups of the spacecraft.

For Dr. Edward C. Stone, director of JPL, it will be the beginning of another adventure--a decade-long, robotic exploration of Mars. But it also is the first step in a new era of space exploration for his laboratory. The days of the once-in-a-decade, multibillion-dollar missions are coming to a close, with the launch of the $2.7 billion Cassini mission to Saturn later this year. And Stone is leading the laboratory into a future where space probes will be smaller, cheaper, faster and more plentiful.

Pathfinder cost $171 million; the rover $25 million. The current plan is to send two missions to Mars every 26 months until 2005, when samples from the planet's surface will be returned to Earth for study.

Stone, a 61-year-old physics professor at Caltech, has been JPL director since 1991. But he has been a key figure at JPL since becoming chief scientist for the Voyager mission 25 years ago. After five years of planning, the twin Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977 and the mission eventually encountered Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Even today, as Voyager speeds toward interstellar space, it is still sending back data. And that will continue for two more decades.

Stone was born in Iowa and earned master's and doctor's degrees in physics at the University of Chicago. He had just begun studying physics at the University of Chicago in 1957, when the space age began. During his career, he has been a principal investigator on nine NASA spacecraft mission and co-investigator on five others.

The JPL director is a friendly, bespectacled scientist who works from an office with large windows facing north, toward the domed home of the laboratory's tracking antennas and the stark mountains beyond. He lives in Pasadena, near his Caltech office, and he and his wife, Alice, have two children and two grandchildren. Energetic and engaging, he remains entranced by the frontiers of space travel.

A seminal moment in his career was Voyager's 1979 discovery of volcanoes on Io, a Jovian moon. It was the kind of discovery, he says, "that makes you realize you had too narrow a view of what the solar system is. We just hadn't been smart enough to ask the right questions. That was our first encounter with the frontier of knowledge. And wow."

Now Stone's mission is to guide JPL into a new era of cost-cutting, downsizing and outsourcing. JPL, owned by NASA and operated under contract by Caltech, recently announced plans to cut its work force from 6,100 to about 5,000 by the year 2000. It also is using nearly half its $1-billion budget to hire contractors to handle more of its work.

But, Stone insists, the science will remain unaffected.


Question: How much has technology advanced in the last decade in terms of space travel?

Answer: The leaps in computing power have been enormous. In sensor systems, we're just beginning to make the breakthroughs. If you buy a camcorder, the device in there which makes the image is called a CCD (charge-coupled device). We have developed a replacement for the CCD that uses 1/100th of the power of the CCD. And that's important. If you want to build a smaller spacecraft, you need smaller [instruments, smaller] solar panels, less power. That technology was not there 10 years ago.

Q: And where are improvements still needed?

A: We are not yet there in terms of revolutionizing spacecraft design, but part of the president's budget request this year will allow us to take the next step to reduce the mass of these spacecraft. That reduces the cost of the craft and also the cost of the launch vehicle. These are the kinds of breakthroughs we're driving for. We want to press the technology frontiers of space. That's the role of NASA. That's the role of a place like JPL.

Q: Is there a danger in this business that you won't think grandly enough, that you'll be limited by your own imagination?

A: That's a good point. NASA was originally established in 1958 in order to bring the U.S. into the space age. The U.S. today is clearly a space-faring nation.

So what is NASA's new role? I think it is to continue to expand the boundaries of space. If we aren't thinking about doing things we haven't done before, we're not doing the job we need to do for the nation.

Q: Over the years, there have been spikes in public interest in space exploration. Does the public still have a lot of interest in what you do?

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