Fatima Mata National College in Kollam, Kerala, worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for close to a quarter century, during which time he worked on no less than six deep space missions, including the prestigious Mars Odyssey Project and the Mars Reconnaissance Mission. I thought it would be interesting to quiz Dr. Varghese about his achievements at NASA and his views on India’s Mars mission, for the benefit of Winnowed’s readers. Dr. Varghese very kindly agreed to answer all my questions not because he is now retired and has some free time on his hands (he is actually busier than ever) but because he happens to be my maternal uncle.
Winnowed: Dr. Varghese, what made you move to the US in the first place?
Dr. Varghese: I was working as a Physics lecturer at the Fatima Mata National College in Kerala when I applied for and received the Fulbright Fellowship. In those days, research opportunities within India were few and far in between and my primary objective was to do cutting edge research and work with the best in the field of physics. With my scholarship, I spent 6 years at the University of Oregon doing my Ph.D. program in physics. After I got my doctorate, I started to work for a privately owned company (Telos Corporation) in the computer systems field.
Winnowed: How was life at Telos? What exactly did you do there?
Dr. Varghese: At Telos, I was involved in developing software-intensive computer systems for earth-orbiting satellite systems, mainly for communications satellites. I managed the development of ground systems and then moved onto becoming business acquisition manager. In 1989, when the Division of the company I worked for moved to Washington D.C., I transferred to another Division within Telos that was supporting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). JPL is a Federally Funded Research & Development Center (FFRDC) of NASA and is managed by California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It is the world leader in developing and conducting deep space missions. So this became a great opportunity for me to work in deep space exploration.
Winnowed: So Telos was your stepping stone to NASA? When exactly did you join NASA?
Dr. Varghese: In January 1989, . I started my career at JPL as a contract employee working on the Mars Observer mission, the first of the Observer series of planetary missions, designed to study the geoscience and climate of Mars. I started my association with the Mars Observer project as a systems engineer for the development of its missions operations system. Mars Observer spacecraft was launched on 25 September 1992. Just before the launch, in August 1992, I joined JPL as a full time employee and was assigned to the Mars Observer project as the Assistant Flight Engineering Office Manager. Unfortunately, the Mars Observer mission ended abruptly when contact with the spacecraft was lost on 21 August 1993, three days before the scheduled insertion into the Mars orbit. It was a very big disappointment to me personally, since this was my first deep space mission. JPL had to reassign a large number of personnel from the project to other jobs and I became a Group Supervisor in the Engineering & Science Directorate, a position I continued for 2 years. After a few other assignments, I joined the 2001 Mars Odyssey Project as its Project Manager. Odyssey is a Mars orbiting mission. In June 2010, I took over as Project Manager of the Mars Reconnaissance Mission, another Mars orbiting mission. During my tenure as the Project Manager for these two Mars missions, I also supported the on-going twin Mars Exploration Rover missions and the Mars Curiosity Rovermission which has been roaming Mars for more than a year now. I retired from JPL in February 2013 and ended a career that spanned 24 years and working on at least half a dozen deep space missions.
Winnowed: Wow! And has JPL been a good employer? Do you feel your efforts and hard work have been recognized?
Dr. Varghese: JPL is a great place to work and grow your talents. It is quick to recognize good work and leadership capabilities. I received promotions rapidly and received much recognition for meritorious performance. This year, JPL selected me for the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for my leadership of the Mars Reconnaissance Mission. This is the second time I was bestowed with this very prestigious award. The previous Outstanding Leadership Medal was for my work on the Deep Space One mission as its Mission Operations Manager.
Winnowed: Could you describe a typical day for me, say when you worked on the Mars Odyssey Project or the Mars Reconnaissance Mission?
Dr. Varghese: Interplanetary mission operations require round-the-clock attention and, although my workday started at 6:30 AM and ended at 4:00 PM, (that is being in the office) I was, for all practical purposes 24/7 all the time. . But we found ways to reduce the load on each individual, by sharing responsibilities and trusting the people who were in charge while I was not physically present at the Lab. My job required a lot of coordination among various support organizations at JPL (e.g., the Deep Space Network, our telemetry & tracking stations) as well as within the MRO team. There were a lot of meetings everyday, discussing various aspects of the mission and deciding courses of action. We plan our operations on a 2-week cycle and design and implement the spacecraft & science instrument activities to accomplish that plan. It requires very intensive work involving several dozen engineers and scientists, and careful integration of the activities to not violate any spacecraft & instrument operational restrictions. A serious error could lead to potential harm to the flight system and even to end of mission. It is pretty stressful!
Winnowed: What was your happiest day at JPL?
Dr. Varghese: There are several: The day we launched the Mars Observer spacecraft. The day we successfully started the Ion Propulsion System on the Deep Space 1 mission. The day we recovered the Odyssey mission from a mission-ending catastrophe. The day the Odyssey mission received signals from the twin Mars Exploration Rovers indicating they landed on Mars successfully and the Mars Reconnaissance Mission received signals from the Mars Curiosity Rover indicating it landed on Mars successfully.
Winnowed: And your saddest?
Dr. Varghese: It was the day we lost the Mars Observer spacecraft. It happened all of a sudden. The spacecraft was about to begin pressurizing its fuel tanks in preparation for the Mars orbit-insertion maneuver when contact with the spacecraft was lost. We never heard from it again and we never found out definitively why we lost contact with the spacecraft. A lot of us put a lot of effort (Herculean, you may say!) to do that mission. It would have been the finest mission if it hadn’t failed.
Winnowed: Tell me Dr. Varghese, why do Mars missions? Do you think it’s worth it for the taxpayer, considering the expenses involved?
Dr. Varghese: Mars has been the object of human fascination for a very long time. With the invention and development of the telescope during the 1600s, increasingly detailed views of Mars from Earth became possible. These early observations revealed color changes on the surface of Mars that were erroneously attributed to seasonal vegetation.These observations also indicated some apparent linear surface features and these were attributed to intelligent design, leading to the belief, right or wrong, that there must be life on Mars.Further telescopic observations led to the discovery of the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, the polar ice caps, and the feature now known as Olympus Mons, the solar system's tallest mountain.
Recent interest to explore Mars is rooted in human curiosity to understand what happened to Mars over the years.We now know that Mars is a rocky planet, like Earth. It was formed around the same time, yet with only half the diameter of Earth.It has a far thinner atmosphere and it has a cold and desert-like surface. It is believed that a few billions of years ago, Mars probably looked more like Earth does now. The present-day atmosphere of Mars, composed mostly of carbon dioxide, is extremely thin, with atmospheric pressure at the surface just 0.6% of the Earth's surface pressure.Today, Mars is quiescent geologically, but its atmosphere breathes and changes from year to year, interacting in complex ways with the water sequestered in Mars' ice caps and permafrost. One of the goals of current Mars exploration missions is to learn how the modern Mars works– how the geological processes of Mars created its unique composition. Comparing the same geological processes of Mars and Earth should help us to understand how Mars’ history has influenced its present state, leading us topredict what to expect on Earth in the future.
Since 1996, Mars exploration has undergone a Renaissance, with data from multiple Mars orbiters and landed missions providing a revolutionary new view of Mars as an Earth-like planet with a complex geologic history. We now know Mars better than any planet in the solar system other than our own, yet we have more questions than ever.
Evidence suggests that Mars once had a much denser atmosphere.The Martian landscape retains channels that were evidently cut by abundant, flowing water - proof that the planet had a much denser atmosphere in the past.The planet was likely shrouded in a thick blanket of gases that supported the presence of liquid water at its surface. Today, the air pressure is so low that free water would instantly boil away. The most likely explanation for the loss in Mars atmosphere is that the solar wind - the great outflow of energetic particles from the Sun - has simply eroded it through time. This has been possible because, unlike Earth, Mars lacks a protective global magnetic field, which is capable of deflecting the energetic particles from the Sun.
We know that water does not flow on Mars today, but it evidently has in the past. So one of the most important questions behind Mars exploration is: has there ever been the right combination of liquid water, available energy, and time to permit life to begin on Mars?
Winnowed: And for a country like India, which faces a number of other challenges, such as the need to uplift a large percentage of its population from poverty, do you think it makes sense to invest in a Mars mission?
Dr. Varghese: Of course it does. Any scientific and engineering endeavor like the Mars mission adds not only to the prestige of the country, but also to the development of technologies for progress.
Winnowed: What are the main challenges in doing Mars missions?
Dr. Varghese: In general, engineering interplanetary missions is very difficult and complicated.Mars has historically been unfriendly to human attempts to explore it. Although more missions have been attempted to Mars than to any other place in the Solar System except the Moon, nearly two-thirds of all Marsexploration attempts have failed before completing their missions.Phrases like "Mars Curse" or "Martian Curse" were introduced to explain away the high failure rate. Fictitious space monsters, such as "Galactic Ghoul" or "Great Galactic Ghoul", that eat away Mars probes, were invented to "explain" the recurring difficulties.
Winnowed: What advice would you give a youngster who wants to become a rocket scientist? What’s the best way to go about it?
Dr. Varghese: Do good school work. Have a great ambition and aspiration. Concentrate on engineering and science studies. Have a great attitude to conquer new areas of human development.
Winnowed: Would you have any advice for Indian policy makers?
Dr. Varghese: India has done exceedingly well in developing a smart space program. It must continue to invest in this endeavor. There has been a greater emphasis, it appears, on the military aspects of its space program. Civilian space applications should be given equal priority. Policy makers should do all they can do to retain the talent in India and they should channel enough resources into R&D. India should do more to strengthen fundamental scientific research at the grassroots level, I mean in colleges across the country.