Part-One of: A conversation with Dr. Paul Spudis

Dr. Paul D. Spudis is a Senior Staff Scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland and Visiting Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Dr. Spudis was formerly with the Branch of Astrogeology, U. S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

He is a geologist who received his education at Arizona State University (B.S., 1976; Ph. D., 1982) and at Brown University (Sc.M., 1977). Since 1982, he has been a Principal Investigator in the Planetary Geology and Geophysics Program of the NASA Office of Space Science, Solar System Exploration Division, specializing in research on the processes of impact and volcanism on the planets.

Included among many of the committees he has served on, he has been a member of the Committee for Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX), an advisory committee of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Synthesis Group, a White House panel that in 1990-1991, analyzed a return to the Moon to establish a base and the first human mission to Mars. He was Deputy Leader of the Science Team for the Department of Defense Clementine mission to the Moon in 1994. He was a member of the President’s Commission on the Implementation of U. S. Space Exploration Policy, (a.k.a. the Aldridge Commission.)

That is in and of itself a major mouthful, but it only scratches the surface, Paul was kind enough the other day to participate in an interview with us. Like the brief bio above, the list of questions that follow only scratch the surface of the list Rob, Ken and I could have put together, but we need to be reasonable, so I hope you find the results informative, I know I did.

Part-1 of a conversation with Paul Spudis.

OotC: Let’s start with a little background first, you got your B.S. degree in Geology and later your Ph.D. from Arizona State University, are you from the southwest originally?

PDS: I was an Army brat, so I’ve lived pretty much all over the country. However, as I’ve spent over 25 years of my life there, I consider Arizona my home state. Arizona is a great place to learn geology; every type of rock you can imagine, all beautifully exposed and largely uncovered by vegetation. If you want to learn geology, move to Arizona.

OotC: Can you pinpoint the moment that you knew your life’s goal was to study not only rocks but the rocks of the moon, asteroids, and other planets?

PDS: I actually came to geology from an interest in space, not the other way around. I had collected rocks when I was a kid in Arizona, but had drifted away from it. I started college as an engineering (electrical) major because watching Apollo, it was clear to me that these were the guys who actually built and flew things in space. I later moved towards the science side and got into physics because I had a really good introductory course in it and I’ve always had a soft spot for astronomy. But my epiphany came during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The great scientific performance put in by Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on that mission got me re-interested in geology. Dave and Jim exploring the Hadley-Apennine region inspired me to go back into rocks. And I haven’t regretted it.

OotC: 2005 was a good year for planetary space exploration, with a list of mission highlights that included Deep Impact, Stardust comet dust sample return, the afore-mentioned Mars rovers rolling along, Cassini/Hugyens and Japan’s attempt to get an asteroid sample. Along with the launching of the Venus Express, Mercury Messenger, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and New Horizons to name just a few, are we finally seeing serious efforts to fully explore and understand our solar neighborhood? And of these recently started or completed missions are you most keeping your eye on?

PDS: I disagree with the premise of your assertion about “finally seeing serious efforts.” I think that we’ve always been serious. We are moving from the first-order reconnaissance phase of exploration (“Let’s just see what’s there”) to a more subtle, sophisticated exploratory plan, one in which we are designing and flying missions that are configured to answer specific questions. We couldn’t even formulate these questions in the 60’s and 70’s, so those older missions were much more reconnaissance in nature. But they did a superb job. And now, we’re following up on the questions they raised.

I am closely watching the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, which was built and is being flown by the Applied Physics Laboratory, where I work. I worked on the global geological map of that planet 20 years ago (using Mariner 10 images) and so I have a special interest in it. I’m particularly curious to see if the time-stratigraphic system I devised for Mercury based on seeing only half the planet holds up when we have pictures of the entire surface. I think that MESSENGER will be a very exciting and interesting mission.

OotC: On the other hand, with people growing up on hyperspace, warp drive, “aye, aye, Captain, half-way across the galaxy — e.t.a., 20 minutes…”, how does one go about engaging the public’s interest when actual individual space exploration missions appears to travel at a speed slower than a snail’s pace?

PDS: The public interest aspect is something that I think you’ll always have, but you must recognize that it’s only a minority of the public that has a real deep interest in space exploration. I reject the notion that Apollo ended because the public lost interest in it – Apollo ended because it was a battle in the Cold War, a battle that we won. When you win a battle, you don’t keep fighting it. The demise of Apollo had nothing to do with a loss of public interest; it was its loss of a sustainable political rationale that caused its end. That’s why we must structure the new Vision to be impervious to the winds of fickle popular opinion. If the space program has societal value, it will continue and thrive. If it ceases to have such, it will wither and die, and rightly so.

One thought on “Part-One of: A conversation with Dr. Paul Spudis

  1. We are most impressed. Keep up the good work.

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