Chief engineer for solar system exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gentry Lee lectures about space, designs computer games, produces television shows, and writes science fiction novels. He spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in August.
What made you choose a career in planetary exploration?
I am a knowledge junkie. I love learning of all kinds. And when I had to figure out what it was I wanted to spend my life doing, I asked myself what will happen during my life that will be the most important thing from a historical viewpoint that also feeds my knowledge junkiness. And the answer was: We will be the first generation to explore the solar system. And that’s how I got interested in planetary exploration.
Can you tell us about a particularly memorable moment in your career?
I had the good fortune of working on the Viking mission to Mars for six or seven years in a variety of different positions. What we were trying to do—both at the time and now looking back at it—seems amazing. In my opinion, it was a greater technological achievement than Apollo. We landed on soft legs on the surface of an unknown Mars. I poured my heart and my soul into that job, and I had the normal fear of failure that everybody who worked on that project had. People told us we were trying to do too much, and when it was successful, it was impossible not to feel that we had reached the top of the tallest mountain in the universe.
Has planetary exploration changed from the Viking program up until today’s latest Mars missions? If so, how?
I’m going to start with the ways that it hasn’t changed. The passion to acquire new knowledge that’s associated with the people who dedicate their lives to doing this work is so beautiful to behold. And that has not changed. When you see what’s in their eyes and in their hearts as they imagine building a driving system for the planet Mars or a camera that will look at the geysers off Enceladus. That unbridled enthusiasm is still the same.
Now let me tell you about the things that have changed. In the beginning, at the time of Viking, there was nobody who had ever done this kind of a job before. We were pioneers in the truest sense of the word, and there were no sententious people who said, “Well, I did it this way, and you guys aren’t doing it that way.” That’s number one. Number two: Nobody had tried to catalog how you do one of these jobs and to make it a textbook kind of experience. Now we have a lot of missions that have been flown, and a lot of lessons learned. And some well-meaning people have taken those lessons and tried to put them into documents that explain how you should do one of these jobs. The people who had to rely upon their engineering judgment and common sense back in the days of Viking now can quote chapter and verse from one volume or another of “This is how you do this,” or “This is how you do that.” That has, in my opinion, produced an activity that is saluting box-checking instead of thinking.
Has the digital revolution been a godsend to planetary exploration?
There is no doubt in my mind that we would not be able to do the missions we do now at the cost we do them were it not for the digital revolution. In the days of Viking, we did not know what the terrain was like on Mars, and we did not know what the atmosphere was like. So we had to run all sorts of entries on the computer in order to figure out what the ramifications might be of all the things we didn’t know. In those days, it took us all night on a mainframe computer to run one [simulation of] the entire process of the heat shield and the parachute and the throttling engines. So if you didn’t get that one run right, you were in trouble.
Now let me tell you what the digital revolution has done. Down the hall from me is the person who’s working on the same thing—entry, descent, and landing—for the Mars 2020 rover mission. He or she can run 100,000 cases on his or her desktop [computer] in one morning.
What celestial object would you next like to see explored?
One of my passions in my entry into this whole field is an answer to the question: Are we alone? Now that sounds hackneyed, but as of this moment we have absolutely no incontrovertible proof that life of any kind exists anywhere in the universe other than on this amazing planet called Earth. Now many of us think that it is virtually certain that life of some kind exists somewhere else, but as of this moment, we have not found any at all. We need to determine whether or not there are any other microbes in our own solar system. We do not think it is likely that any more sophisticated life than microbes exists anywhere in our solar system. But it could very well be that microbes are there, and we use the amazing thermal events in the bottom of the ocean as an example of how that process might work. So for that, I want to go to Enceladus and Europa. We have a mission planned for Europa, but the Enceladus plumes are bursting out with all kinds of interesting chemicals, and accessibility to whether or not those plumes contain signatures indicating the possibility of biotic or pre-biotic activity would be fascinating. Since the Europa mission is already on the docket, the mission I would most like to do in planetary exploration is to go to Enceladus, and fly through the plumes and examine what we discover there.
What was it like working with Carl Sagan on “Cosmos” [the science documentary series that first aired on PBS in 1980]?
It was an extraordinary experience. I want to hand out some compliments to Carl. I have never met a human being whose felicity with the English language in taking complicated ideas and rendering them into [words that were] understandable by the ordinary intelligent person—he was unbelievable. And working with him as close as I did for as many years as I did, I never ceased to be amazed at how he would find a way to hit a resonant chord in the viewer or in the reader on a subject that was impossibly complex. The other thing I really enjoyed about working with Carl was his recognition that in order to do something big, you need a wide variety of talents. We didn’t do “Cosmos” because Carl worked alone. We did “Cosmos” because we had a team of people who were dedicated to doing it. And we all had one fundamental goal: Capture the excitement and sense of wonder that are present in scientific investigation. And that’s what we did. There is nothing in the original “Cosmos” series that is dumbed down.
Do you identify more as an engineer who writes literature? Or a novelist whose day job happens to involve high-level engineering?
I always thought of myself as a fairly intelligent, logical engineer with sufficient capability in writing to tell a good story.
Tell me something you have on the wall in your office.
I have the initial photographs from the landing of Opportunity [a Mars rover]. I have photographs of the initial landings of Viking. I have pictures of me with four of my older sons on the ski slopes. I have pictures of my youngest boy and my wife on the beach in Cancun. And I have a picture of me with Arthur [C. Clarke] that appeared in some science fiction magazine, holding up the Rama [series of science fiction] books that we wrote together. That’s what’s in my office.