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Pathfinder project scientist Matthew Golombek '78, '81G, photographed on campus in September. (Ben Barnhart photo)
Last July 4, the Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars and, a few hours later, began sending back its first dazzling photographs of the formations and outcroppings of the red planet. When those pictures started rolling in, the mission's science teams gathered around the monitors whooped and hollered with glee. In a video of that moment, Pathfinder project scientist Matt Golombek can be seen in their midst, raising his fist in a triumphant gesture and shouting, "I deliver!"
One would expect no less of a reaction at such a moment, particularly from Golombek, who'd been in charge of determining where the Pathfinder should land. "That," as he puts it, "was my baby." In choosing a site, he and his colleagues had used maps derived from the Viking missions of the 1970s, in which each pixel represents an area roughly the size of a football field, and a crater a kilometer-and-a-half in diameter has all the definition of a nail hole. Since the Pathfinder could have met with disaster on an object no bigger than an easy chair, narrowing the field of possibilities took some doing.
And of course, for their research, they needed "a place with lots of rocks." Shortly after the landing, the mission team had ascertained that the Pathfinder was nearly upright, leading one member to start moaning that they were on a vast salt flat or somewhere equally inopportune. Happily, they quickly learned that the spacecraft was guest of honor at a geological feast, "a smorgasbord of rocks," in Golombek's words. "To be congratulated by the team members, as a scientist," recalls Golombek of that time, "was especially meaningful."
Golombek, who has both his master's and doctorate in geology from UMass, is one of three alumni affiliated with the Pathfinder mission (see sidebar). Forty-two years old, he is a youthful-looking man with a wide smile and a quick, playful sense of humor. His clear enthusiasm for his work is part of his charm, as is his capacity for wry understatement: he explains his July 4 jubilation by saying, "Rocks are an exciting thing, if you're a geologist." His ability to command the attention of a packed hall, as he did at Mahar Auditorium on campus earlier this fall, is a function not only of his experience as a veteran of many press conferences, but his enduring enthusiasm for planetary geology. Golombek has been studying the geology of astral bodies, including our moon and one of Jupiter's, as well as Mars, since his days at UMass. He joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, where the Pathfinder mission is based, in 1983, and was involved in several Mars studies before becoming project scientist for Pathfinder when the mission got underway in 1993.
As project scientist, Golombek is "in charge of the overall science content of the mission and of making sure the science teams are organized to plan for, and receive, and analyze the data after landing." This job description, from the "Meet Matt Golombek" page of the "Live from Mars" website, neatly summarizes his responsibilities, but only hints at their breadth and depth. Those science teams, for example there are seven altogether, comprising seventy-five scientists in all. Golombek worked with them first to determine what they would look for and how they would look for it, and then, after the landing, to set priorities as to what they looked for when. As well as the scientific background needed to achieve these ends, Golombek seems to possess the tact one must bring to such a job. When asked about the managerial challenges, he merely acknowledges that "social skills help," and says he has tried to encourage everyone to concentrate on the main task: "learning something new."
Golombek acknowledges that being a research scientist doesn't necessarily prepare you to work with a crowd: "You're self-directed, it's a very personal activity. "Working on a mission, by contrast, is "so much larger, you're representing a much larger community, not just a science team, but all the scientists doing research in the field." There's enormous pressure to make the most of what, again in a bit of understatement, Golombek calls, "a singular opportunity."
This singular opportunity excited the public, as well,to a far greater degree than Golombek and his cohorts had anticipated. "Everyone was convinced it would work, what we never expected was the public's embrace of the
mission," he recalls. The public certainly embraced the chance to visit Mars via the Internet. NASA's Pathfinder websites recorded over 500 million "hits" during the first month of the Pathfinder's sojourn on Mars.
That the Pathfinder reached Mars at all was truly a marvel. The three-foot-tall spacecraft travelled for seven months and 119 million miles before it aerobraked out of its arc through space, plummeting towards an ancient floodplain known as Ares Vallis, and cushioned by airbags, bounced sixteen times before coming to halt. The second marvel was that nothing went wrong during the landing, involving seventy separate steps "all of which had to work exactly right the first time," according to Golombek within a four-minute time span. Pathfinder landed on its feet, air bags intact, no less; and after a minor glitch or two, its landing petals opened and the Sojourner "debouched" onto the ochre-hued, floury, sulphurous surface of Mars.
Once the rover started exploring, it was up to Golombek to confer with the science and rover teams to determine what the "one-foot-tall geologist," as he has referred to the diminutive vehicle, would do next. During the first weeks, there was one "command cycle" per day, and because the Martian day ("sol" in JPL lingo) is forty minutes longer than ours, Golombek and his colleagues found themselves pulling all-nighters. Golombek's wife, Connie Morgan, and their daughter and son, twins Sydney and Benjamin, didn't see much of him, at least not in person. One afternoon during this time, Golombek recounts, Benjamin was playing in front of the television when his father appeared on screen at a press conference. The four-year old looked up and said, "Daddy, will you come play trains with me?"
Since those first weeks in July, the lander and the rover have performed like troupers, collecting billions of "bits" of information thousands of pictures, millions of measurements of wind, temperature and other atmospheric phenomena. Thanks to Sojourner's ability to get up close, millions of laypeople have come to feel a vicarious familiarity with the Martian rocks that it has visited or photographed.. (The rocks' affectionate nicknames Barnacle Bill, Moe, Stimpy, Yogi, Scooby-Doo, Space Ghost, Calvin and Hobbes were "officiated" by minerology and geochemistry science group member Nathan Bridges '97, himself nicknamed the "Rock Czar" of the Pathfinder mission.) And both lander and rover functioned for months past the minimum expectations.
The stellar performances of these intrepid machines are all the more impressive for their being, as Golombek has described it, "kludged together" in record time three and a half years by "a couple of people in a hobby shop." The glory days of astronomical budgets for space research are long gone; today's missions have to be done, says Golombek, "faster, better, cheaper." The scientist is fond of noting that, at $171 million, the Pathfinder cost less than the cinematic bomb "Waterworld," and about one-twentieth as much as the earlier, Viking missions.
The mission has been an unqualified success in attaining one of its primary goals: demonstrating that it is possible to land on and explore the Martian surface. As for the scientific objectives, Golombek raises the question, "if you look beyond the sheer quantity of data, what have we learned that is really new and significant?" Under investigation have been seven scientific areas including geology, geomorphology, and meteorology. Some of the data has verified that which was obtained by the Viking landers, and the implications of much of the rest will be plumbed for years to come. But there have been major new discoveries already.
For instance, our new ability to monitor Mars' polar rotation and motion has shown that the planet has a metallic core at least thirteen hundred kilometers in radius. Readings from the Rover have indicated that the dust and rocks at the landing site are much more highly differentiated than had been expected, suggesting more thermal volcanic activity in Mar's past. Commenting on the news about the Martian surface, Golombek calls it "intriguing...we thought it would be much more primitive like the Moon but it's more Earth-like." Magnets on the Sojourner rover have also found the dust to be highly magnetic, suggesting that there was once an "active hydrologic cycle" that is, water passed over rocks collecting iron, then freeze-dried on the surface. Ultimately, the information that the mission has collected may have implications for the study of the Earth's past, as comparisons are made between what is being learned about Mars and what we know of our own home.
Beyond such invaluable findings, there is the sheer excitement of gaining a sense of what it's like on Mars. Golombek becomes nearly rhapsodic when he talks about "the salmon-red skies, the ice-blue clouds."Not that Mars is a very hospitable-seeming place, with its temperature shifts of a hundred degrees over the course of a day from eight degrees above to 107 below Fahrenheit and swings of forty degrees within minutes. The atmosphere is thin, there are dust devils swirling about. Can an environment seemingly so hostile to us contain life?
The question of life on Mars is, says Golombek, "a compelling, almost theological question." He poses it this way: "Will life form anywhere that water is stable? Or does it require a kind of divine intervention?" There is a possibility of bacterial lifeforms trapped beneath Mars' frozen seas; the effort to find them makes the proverbial search for the needle in a haystack seem a snap by comparison. Almost facetiously, Golombek suggests that life started on Mars and was transported via meteorites to Earth. "Are we all Martians?" the scientist asked in the question-and-answer session after his September lecture at UMass.
Probably the other big question is, will there be life on Mars will we someday land astronauts on the red planet? "It will happen, people will go," Golembek believes. He draws an analogy between striving to reach Mars and the turn-of-the-century drive to reach the South Pole, "once an enormous challenge."
Right now, it's fall on Mars, and the planet is speeding up a little in its revolutions, like a skater, says Golombek, pulling in her arms. It's getting even colder, and windier, and darker, and as we go to press, there has been no communication between Earth and the lander for a month. When last heard from, the rover was checking out a rock called "Chimp." There will be other missions '01" is coming up but Golombek is hardly immune to a feeling of sadness as the Pathfinder slips into silence. "Working on a spacecraft is like raising a child, and then sending him off to college," he says. "You feel a personal attachment." But he also takes the long view. "The legacy we leave is what we learn about Mars, what goes in the textbooks.
As a boy, George McGill spread maps all over his bedroom floor and, drawing upon his father's extensive collection of nuts and bolts, charted the maneuvers of Allied forces in Europe. Some fifty years later, McGill is still poring over maps. These days, the maps are more likely to be of Venus. McGill is currently preparing geological maps of several regions of Venus, some on his own, some in collaboration with former graduate students.
A planetary geologist, McGill came to UMass in 1958, right after getting his Ph.D. from Princeton. Since then, he's introduced thousands of students, including Matt Golombek and Nathan Bridges of the Pathfinder mission, to the splendors and mysteries of geology. His own enthusiasm for the subject seems as fresh and unabated as a boy's. Officially emeritus this fall, he maintains a windowless cubby in the labyrinthine Morrill Center; clearly his second home, it is home as well to two computers, bookshelves crammed full of texts and journals, file drawers, stacks of papers - all the earmarks of an office of an active research scientist.
According to McGill, the geosciences department at UMass actively fosters this sense of belonging; it's a truly collegial place, where upperclassmen routinely address professors by their first names. McGill himself is friendly and down-to-earth, easily engaged in conversation, whether the subject is Venus, the Mt. Holyoke range, or his grandchildren, whose sweet faces shine in school photos displayed next to a monitor. An alumnus of two space missions to Venus, McGill is obviously pleased that two of his former students are working on Pathfinder. Singing the praises of Bridges and Golombek, he says of the latter, "We're all excited about our science, but Matt shows it."
McGill went into geology because, he says, he "always loved history," which he calls "a big component of geology: figuring out what happened, and when it happened, on Earth as well as on other planets." As for planetary geology, "it's perfect for me," he says. "I have never been comfortable trying to be a narrow specialist; in planetary, there are real opportunities for a generalist." He describes with delight a recent conference on "Early Mars" that brought together geologists, astronomers, physicists, and microbiologists.
McGill believes the history of science is distinguished by "flashes of genius, one here, one there," citing the theory of plate tectonics as a flash that thrilled his generation of geologists. Stating without apparent regret that "I've never had one," he acknowledges that his research contributes at the "secondary level" to furthering scientific thought. The big discoveries grow out of the work of many; McGill believes "one has to be patient" in working towards greater understanding of the universe.
And the work is not without its more immediate gratifications. McGill recently had the opportunity to suggest a name for a Venusian volcano to the International Astronomical Union, the scientific body that approves such things.The suggestions were solicited, incidentally, from an English professor and the mother of yet another of his former students and wide circle of friends.