Our Future in Space: The Future of LPL
This Department needs to very carefully look at how it’s going to structure itself for the future, in the same sense that Kuiper structured the initial laboratory—by looking around at people and bringing people in, hiring people that each filled a niche, but they contributed to a coherent whole. I think the Department and Lab is going to have an opportunity to hire a number of people beginning next year . Each of these people represents an opportunity.
I think that’s the next pivotal moment. It’s in the near-term: How to replace the existing senior faculty with new faculty who will in time—ten, twenty years—carry on these traditions. Kuiper had a knack for it. I think the Department has in general done a very good job of adding to the faculty, as the faculty spots have become available. But what’s happening now is going to be a lot of people leaving. Again, it’s one of these opportunities that comes along, and you can either use it effectively or squander it.
There’s more to it than just placing bets. It’s having a vision: Where do we want to go? More importantly, what’s going to be the next opportunities in terms of science and technology? How can you possible look ten, twenty years in the future to begin planning for it, and committing yourself to setting up resources, none of which will be cheap, that will help prepare for it? Kuiper did it. He was good at it. The question is can we do it?
I think LPL continues to have a very, very bright future. I have to say I feel a great sense of satisfaction in watching the launch of the Phoenix mission, because when we started doing major initiatives in experimental space work, it wasn’t obvious that we were going to have anything approaching the level of success that LPL ultimately did have. It’s really a thrill to see that trajectory continue and go deeper.
So, indeed, I think LPL has a really bright future, which is of course tied in some respects to the NASA program. That last part leads to a certain amount of uncertainty. That being said, I think that LPL has been facile and flexible and adaptable, and there is every reason to believe that LPL, however the NASA program develops, is going to continue to occupy a successful position in space science.
LPL has set the standard for all the other intuitions of planetary sciences. Maintaining that position is not trivial. I know it sounds less glamorous than going somewhere else—just staying where they are—but if LPL can just maintain their leadership position, that in itself would be a great achievement.
Where LPL goes from here would be up to LPL. For example, as the Head of the Planetary Group here at the University of Central Florida, I would like to emulate LPL. If I were at LPL, my attitude would be different. It would be: How can we continue to be cutting-edge and not slip, or increase and go to the next level? What are the opportunities for LPL?
In many ways LPL continues to make my life easy, because I have a great role model to emulate. As a member of a planetary group that is very young and is growing, LPL is a great model. In that sense, I continue to be grateful to LPL—in many ways, but this is another way. If I was the leader of LPL, I would probably be looking for: What is the next step? How can they go up one more level? But just staying as the leader in the U.S. and the world in planetary science would be a great achievement.
The Department’s really made up of a large number of semi-independent entrepreneurs. I think if you hire good people, they’re going to each look out on their own for what are the interesting areas of science and move into that. To some extent, if you just provide the environment for people to do their work well, the Department’s going to go where the action is.
I think LPL has every opportunity to take the lead in space missions from now on. What can you do with a telescope anymore, compared to being on the surface of the darn place? I think over the next 50 years we’re going to be expanding outwards. The outer solar system has turned out to be fabulously interesting.
The search for life is an excellent theme. I’m very hopeful that Phoenix is one of the stepping stones toward that search for life. If we find something, and who says we won’t, that could really galvanize the field. The gun’s loaded, the finger’s on the trigger, and one of these days it’s going to be bam, off we go, because we’ll find something so interesting that the government will have to support it. People will say, “We want to know more about this.” It’s not going to be whether it’s an acidic or a basaltic rock on the surface of Mars. That is not going to galvanize the public who has to pay for these things. It’s going to be something to do with life.
We actually need to set the trends. I don’t pretend to be smart enough to know what those trends are. My own sense is that the search for Earth-like planets around other stars—we know of over 200 planets around other stars; we have found for the first time something that may be Earth-like—but the search for life on other planets. The Phoenix Mission has the chance to find the smoking gun for life.
We need to be focusing on the big questions; things that humanity has thought about probably since Homo sapiens sapiens first became sentient and started thinking. Are we alone in the universe? How did life come about? Where is it distributed to? What is our destiny; are we destined to only be on Earth or are we destined to a future amongst the stars? I think that guides what LPL ought to be thinking about.
Now, what individual faculty decide to do, and what individual students and post-docs decide to do, is very much a matter of their own creativity and imaginations. One of the things I learned a lot time ago is not to dictate to people how to do things. Create the opportunities for them to explore, and you’ll be astonished at what they come up with.