Interview with Stardust-NExT Project Manger, Tim Larson
What does it mean to you to be the new Project Manager of the Stardust-NExT mission?
I always enjoy working on project teams. The focus, dedication, and sense of accomplishment is unrivaled. This team has a great deal of experience flying the Stardust spacecraft, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them and work with them. It is great to be able to get additional scientific value from a spacecraft that has completed one mission, and is still operating well and has sufficient resources to do more.
You previously worked on the Deep Impact mission, what are your thoughts about going back to explore Tempel 1—this time with a different spacecraft?
Our previous encounter with Tempel-1 gave us a unique close up look
at the surface of the comet, as well as a view of the subsurface materials. However, there is still so much we don't know about comets, particularly how they evolve over time as they travel near the sun and then back out into the solar system. Our next encounter with this comet will afford us the unprecedented opportunity to take a close look at its nucleus on two successive passes through the inner solar system. Although the spacecraft is different, and not necessarily designed for imaging distant objects with high resolution, we will be able to use our previous observations of Tempel-1 to maximize its performance.
What's your background? (good place to discuss educational background, previous missions worked etc.)
I received my Bachelor Degree in Mechanical Engineering from California State University at Los Angeles in 1985. I spent the early years of my career at Hughes Aircraft Company in El Segundo involved in thermal design, analysis, and testing of electronic equipment used in various space and airborne applications. Since joining JPL in 1993, I have worked in a variety of areas related to qualifying hardware for use in the launch and space mission environments, supporting various missions and instruments. I served as the mission assurance manager for the JPL contributions to the Herschel and Planck projects, two European Space Agency missions due to launch next year. I joined the Deep Impact project about a year before launch, again as the mission assurance manager, and was involved through launch and the comet encounter in 2005. That was followed by the Dawn project, where I again filled the role of the mission assurance manager through the assembly, test, and launch, and after the initial checkout period I moved over to line management and spent the last year as the deputy manager of the Reliability Engineering office. I have been fortunate to work with many excellent colleagues and have learned a great deal from each.
What's your most exciting experience to date working at JPL?
Without a doubt, everyone involved in the Deep Impact encounter with Tempel-1 on July 4, 2005 looks back on that event as one of the most exciting of their career. The six months between launch and encounter were packed with so much work, and there were so many things that could go wrong as the impactor lined itself up for the collision with the comet, that the pressure in the last 24 hours was immense. When we saw that first images of the flash of light and the ejecta plume from the impact, we knew we had scored a perfect bull's eye. As Rick Grammier, the project manager, described it, it was like hitting a bullet with another bullet.
In your role as PM what can you foresee being the biggest challenge?
One of the studies we're involved with at the moment is getting a good estimate of the remaining propellant on board the spacecraft. The better we understand this, the more we will know how much flexibility we have in adjusting our time of arrival at the comet. The other challenge is in taking best advantage of the previous observations by the DI spacecraft and ground telescopes to understand the rotational period of the comet. Both of these factors affect our ability to adjust the timing of our comet flyby to maximize our chances of imaging the side of the comet previously imaged by DI. If we are able to successfully do this, we will be able to maximize the value of our observations.
At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in Space science? Or engineering? (talk about path that led you to this field)
Throughout high school I enjoyed math and science as well as music, so by the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to pursue either engineering or music. I applied to the engineering school, but switched majors during my first quarter. After some years as a music major, heading towards a career in opera, I decided to return to my original choice. At that point I knew I wanted to get involved in space, and have been fortunate to be able to pursue that from the very beginning of my career.
What do you enjoy most about you job?
As a kid, I was always awed by the pictures of the astronauts walking on the moon, so I guess you could say they were the early influences that got me interested in space. I also loved flying, and everything about airplanes. However, looking back, the lessons and examples from my parents on dedication, hard work, and responsibility had the greatest lasting influence on my development.