JPL scientist, Steve Lichten, talks to us about his childhood dream job, building a telescope from scratch and what would happen if we found life on Mars. 

Tell us about your background. Were you interested in science as a kid? What inspired you to become a scientist?
I followed the American space program intently in the late 1960s, even though I was very young and there was much I did not understand. Watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon on live TV (a small black and white TV with rabbit ear–type antenna) had a huge impact on me. I spent much of my time as a kid building and launching model rockets and became obsessed with astronomy and learning about the solar system. In addition to the model rockets, I built telescopes, a spectrograph, and shortwave radios, eager to try my hand at building things that might connect me to faraway places or enable me to figure out how things work.

Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up? What were your favorites? What do you watch now?
I never watched very much TV as I was growing up. My parents had a rule limiting me and my siblings to 1 hour of TV per day so I quickly found other things to busy myself with, especially “projects” such as building a telescope, which took me over a year since I was grinding glass blanks by hand and learning about optics, among other things. I spent many hours with that telescope staying up most of the night looking at galaxies and planets and other celestial objects. Watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon on live TV in 1969 had more influence on me than any other TV shows or movies. Interestingly, I was not so much interested in being an astronaut as I was in building telescopes. I could study things in my telescope that were way too far away for a human to ever travel to. I also spent a lot of time with my shortwave radio, which I built from a Radio Shack kit. The cold war was in full swing when I was a teenager and I found obscure radio broadcasts coming from China or Russia and was fascinated by the strident political rhetoric in those broadcasts and their world view that was completely different from the one I was used to. These things are really all connected because one thing people sometimes forget today is how the space race in the 1960s and 1970s was, in a sense, another facet of the cold war.

I tend not to watch a lot of science-fiction TV shows or movies, I tend to gravitate toward other genres. However, I remember seeing and enjoying the Andromeda Strain, Sleeper, Star Wars, Alien, and Star Trek many years ago. I was actually influenced more by books, such as numerous stories and novels by Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, etc. I also really enjoyed The Dish, which is a movie made about 10 years ago about an Australian radio telescope that was used to support Apollo 11.

Is there a storyline you would like to see in a television show or movie that involves an aspect of your field – or science in general – that has not yet been covered?
It seems that there is nothing that has not been covered in TV or a movie somewhere. There are several themes that have not been fully explored, although I am not sure how much public appeal they would have. One is how our country and the world might react to the discovery of a primitive life form, say on Mars. I am not talking about Martians here, but rather a simple fungus or microbe. How would that be handled? What would we do about it? I believe that NASA has protocols for this, but I imagine there might be a big tumult that might be hard to predict.

What does your job entail? Can you tell us who you have worked with, and which projects you have worked on? A favorite or memorable project?
At present, I am the Division Manager for Communications, Tracking and Radar, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The scientists and engineers at JPL are the most talented, innovative, and dedicated people I have ever met. Working with them, and working at NASA/JPL, has been something of a dream job for someone who grew up building telescopes and model rockets. My division is responsible for interplanetary communications for most NASA deep space missions; develops payloads that use radar and GPS remote sensing for science missions that include geophysics, Earth climate science, and planetary science; and includes about 500 scientists, engineers, and technologists who do work in associated fields. I cannot say that I have a favorite project or mission because they are all important to me. Among the more recent ones my division has had major roles in are GRACE (gravity and climate science mission that has a pair of Earth orbiters); Aquarius (radar Earth orbiter to study ocean salinity, also important for changes in the ocean and climate); GRAIL (Lunar gravity mission); JUNO (en route to Jupiter now to do Jovian science); the Phoenix Mars lander and the two Mars Exploration Rovers; and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL – the rover “Curiosity” now exploring Mars to determine the habitability of that planet). Earlier in my career, I worked on radio interferometric techniques for deep space navigation and developed GPS software and algorithms, from which I have four patents. One item of note – some of JPL/Caltech’s patented GPS software was used to implement the GPS-based navigation system that is used on commercial aircrafts that everyone flies on.

What moment early on in your career stands out as a turning point?
When I was an undergraduate at Harvard University, I got a part-time job working for an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I loved that job. It was that experience that cemented my desire to devote my career to science and space exploration.

What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science and engineering?
I think a lot of people look at science and engineering as mostly foreign and not understandable. There are relatively few scientists or engineers portrayed in films or in TV shows, and often they are portrayed inaccurately or oddly. There are three short films – The American Rocketeer, Explorer 1, and Destination Moon – that were shown on KCET and are available on DVDs that give the viewer a good sense of what it is like to work in the space program. Scientists and engineers typically have an innate curiosity and desire to figure out how things work and to create things. I think it is challenging for the entertainment industry to find a way to convey the intense drive, focus, and commitment that most scientists and engineers have.

Can you share one or two of your favorite examples of science in movies or television?
Good Will Hunting and Dark Matter are some examples of films that explore some of the conflicts and challenges faced by scientists in academia. The Dish and Apollo 13 are entertaining films that present different views of “drama” in the space program.