Dr. Charles Elachi: A CSQ&A with JPL’s Director

CSQ In terms of breakthroughs and new discoveries, what space-related headlines do you expect we’ll see in 2015? DR. CHARLES ELACHI All the basic ingredients and minerals [that] exist on […]

CSQ In terms of breakthroughs and new discoveries, what space-related headlines do you expect we’ll see in 2015?
DR. CHARLES ELACHI All the basic ingredients and minerals [that] exist on Earth, everything that is in your body, those things exist on Mars. And the question is, at some time in the past, did these elements get together and form organic materials? If we discover that, that could be a major headline.

We will continue to detect planets around neighboring stars and the key will be how many Earth-like planets will we be detecting? So far we have seen thousands of planets, but only a small number are in the right region to be like Earth. We expect these will be discovered over the next 12 months.

We have put a satellite in orbit that is just starting to get data that will give us monthly global maps of carbon dioxide in [Earth’s] atmosphere. That will tell us where carbon is being emitted and where it’s being absorbed – how much the oceans are absorbing, how much tropical vegetation is absorbing – [and] that will give us significant insight about the warming of our planet.

CSQ You joined JPL on the heels of a major success. How would you compare man’s first steps on the moon with some recent breakthroughs and discoveries?
CE Clearly, the moon was a dramatic thing, but we were still at the early stage of exploring the planets. We were considering ourselves lucky if we’d just fly by a planet and get a picture. Today, we have [had] rovers on Mars for a decade. We have Cassini, which is in orbit around Saturn, [and] we have visited every planet in the solar system. We’ve had humans in orbit [consecutively] for 11 years on the International Space Station. So when you think of just one lifetime, from the time I was in the university to the time that I have been director of JPL, in 40 years, it’s amazing what has been accomplished. I just wish I was younger so I could see what’s going to happen in the next 50 years.

JPL's Pasadena campus

JPL’s Pasadena campus

CSQ What technology do you see having most impact toward the furthering of JPL’s goals?
CE 3D printing, if evolved to its potential, could have a real impact. Also, we are developing laser links and laser communication – what we call an optical interplanetary Internet – [so that] you will be able to send videos in real time from all across the solar system, and basically we will connect our rovers to be part of an Internet that people will have access to.

Other technology we’re working on and will be demonstrating on the next Mars rover mission is extract[ing] water from the surface and atmosphere of Mars. So in the future when we send humans there, they won’t have to carry [water] but will be able to extract [it] from the surface.

CSQ When you look back on the space race of the 1950s and ’60s, the United States and Russia were pitted against each other in the drive to be the first at everything. How has that dynamic changed over the years?
CE I think collaboration benefits all parties. Number one, you can do more for the buck, number 2 there are smart people all around the world, and number 3, it creates admiration [for] our country and the boldness of the United States [in terms of] exploring. The NASA logo is probably the best ambassador for the United States across the world, because it shows how bold and innovative the United States is, how we’re exploring, and we’re doing it on behalf of everybody. We don’t hide the data. We put it immediately on our website. When we landed Curiosity, within 24 hours there were 1.6 billion hits on our website worldwide. And it shows how excited the rest of the world is in what the U.S. is doing.

The Hubble Space Telescope showing a galaxy known as NGC 6872 in the constellation of Pavo. Pavo lies roughly 300 million light-years away from Earth

The Hubble Space Telescope showing a galaxy known as NGC 6872 in the constellation of Pavo. Pavo lies roughly 300 million light-years away from Earth

CSQ What was your reaction when the first Hubble Deep Field images came in?
CE Complete awe. I mean, we’re seeing a very, very minute thing of what’s actually out there with our eyes. And even that fascinates us. Our technology has enabled us to see that beautiful world that our ancestors could never see. Every time I look at a new picture, I’m absolutely fascinated.

In a sense, you can think of me as a kid in a candy store being the director of JPL. Anybody who knows anything about space tells me, “You have the best job in the world.” And I answer, “Yeah, I know that!”

CSQ What gives you the most sense of pride about what you do?
CE Here at JPL, we have what I consider 5,000 explorers who are dedicating their lives to explore the universe on behalf of humanity. It’s always rewarding every day to come to work. I know I’m going to be smarter at the end of the day than the beginning of the day because I interact with these employees.

Most of my [research] has been related to using radar on satellites to image both our planet and other planets. One of the major discoveries early in my career [was] discovering that we can actually map features below the surface, which got a lot of people in archaeology excited. That has special significance for me because I was 25 years old, and I was in charge of a mission with a bunch of young people. It’s like your first date, you remember it for a long time.

CSQ How do you feel about the efforts of entrepreneurs who are striving to make space travel a commercial commodity accessible to the general public?
CE I think the role of NASA is to develop the basic technology and do what I call the early steps. And we want to have other people follow that. Because if they don’t follow, then why are we doing all of this? The way I look at it, JPL and NASA open the door to the new frontier, and we encourage the commercial world to follow and explore so that we can move to the next new frontier. People like Elon Musk and Richard Branson are the early pioneers in commercializing and bringing what NASA has done in exploration to the general public.

CSQ What do you think the future holds in terms of the human race living beyond the confines of this planet?
CE In the next 20 years, we will have permanent stations on Mars similar to what we have on Antarctica … where human astronauts or scientists will go to Mars on that experiment and come back. It could be amenable for human habitation in the longer term.

CSQ If you could have a dinner discussion with anyone throughout history, who would you choose?
CE Leonardo da Vinci. It’s amazing to think of a person 500 years ago, who had the superb talent, not only in science, but also art and literature. His book [“Codex on the Flight of Birds”] has some of the early descriptions of how birds fly and how they control their flight. Four years ago, I was invited by the Royal Library in Turin, Italy, where the manuscript resides. They wanted to scan the codex onto a digital file and put it on a chip that now resides on the rover Curiosity. So Leonardo is on Mars, in a way, as we speak.

Dr. Charles Elachi

Director | Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Less than one year after man first walked on the moon, Dr. Charles Elachi joined the staff at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. More than 44 years later, he’s still there, having served as director of the federally funded research and development center since 2001. The 67-year-old Lebanese native has witnessed mankind’s most breathtaking discoveries about the solar system, the galaxy, and universe. Recently he set aside a few minutes with CSQ to discuss some past and current missions of note.