Dr. Charles Elachi: On the Golden Age of Space Exploration

Dr. Charles Elachi

"Take risks, but thoughtful risks" became a motto for Dr. Charles Elachi, who as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched some of America's most risky space missions - during a time that he calls "the Golden Age of Space Exploration." Most of these missions succeeded spectacularly, like the elaborate landing by parachute, cable and sky crane of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012. Not everything worked entirely as planned - as Elachi joked, "this is not easy, it is rocket science after all!" But looking back over a total of 46 years that he spent at JPL, Elachi said "if we only wait until things work perfectly, then we are not trying hard enough."

Elachi was always pushing his staff at JPL to reach high - "Dare Mighty Things" is inscribed on a wall at the facility in Pasadena - and the achievements have been, literally, stellar. Elachi stepped down as JPL's director last summer after 15 years - he remains on the faculty at Caltech - but he is confident that in this golden age of exploration the discoveries will keep coming, as JPL continues to go where no one has gone before.

One of the most audacious plans which Elachi outlined over a LAWAC dinner on January 25th is to send a spacecraft to land on the surface of the frozen moon of Europa, which orbits Jupiter. To get access to what they think is a vast liquid ocean underneath the ice, JPL scientists intend to melt a hole in the ice, and then lower a specially-designed submarine into the water below. The submarine, which they are already testing in the Arctic Ocean on this planet, would seek out any signs of life that might plausibly exist in the ocean.

And if this sounds like science fiction, Elachi is not perturbed. Some of the space movies he actually thinks are quite close to reality - notably the recent film starring Matt Damon, The Martian. "A lot of that film was pretty accurate - we could be doing that kind of thing on Mars in about 20 years," he said. (One Hollywood dramatization that was not scientifically-based was the storm that wrecked the Mars outpost - Elachi said that because the atmosphere is so thin on Mars, one would barely feel the effects of a storm.)

On the question of whether we should send humans to explore other planets, Elachi said that scientifically it made little sense. "We can get robots to do all the work much more cheaply than humans." But he acknowledged that human space travel was inspiring and captures the imagination of the general public, and expects a human mission to Mars to happen - albeit not as quickly as Elon Musk is proposing. "I think it will take at least 20 years."

Meanwhile JPL will be sending another Rover to Mars that will be able to collect soil samples, put them in canisters, deposit them into a rocket that they will land on the planet, and then bring them back to Earth. And to help this Rover find interesting samples, they are designing a small drone that can fly around the Rover and direct it to sites of interest. And to really wow people they will set up a virtual reality system that will allow people to put on 3-D goggles at home and then be transported to the surface of Mars and walk around the Rover, looking at the surroundings.

As for the search for extraterrestrial life, Elachi thinks it is entirely possible - although it may not look like life on earth, might not even be based on carbon as life is on this planet. But while we need to keep an open mind about what life elsewhere might look like, any discovery would be revolutionary. "If we find a planet with oceans and any evidence of life, it will change our whole conception of our universe. I am sure the President would tweet about it."