Kevin R. Grazier: Rocket Scientist [Featured Geek]

Kevin Grazier at JPLWhen it comes to geek cred, it’s hard to beat Kevin R. Grazier, Ph.D.

He’s a recovering rocket scientist, who spent 15 years on the Cassini/Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan. He wrote mission planning and analysis software that won awards at both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA.

He’s still an active researcher, focusing on numerical method development and long-term large-scale computer simulations of solar system dynamics, evolution, and chaos.

He teaches: At UCLA, Santa Monica College and College of the Canyons he covers basic astronomy, planetary science, cosmology, the search for extraterrestrial life, and the science of science fiction.

Too serious? OK, he’s also the science advisor on TNT’s Falling Skies, Syfy’s upcoming epic Defiance and the film Gravity. He also served as science advisor on a number of series, including Eureka, Battlestar Galactica and The Event. And if that’s not enough, he co-authored The Science of Battlestar Galactica, edited The Science of Dune, The Science of Michael Crichton and Fringe Science: Parallel Universes, White Tulips, and Mad Scientists.

There’s more but do you really want to know? I did. So, I convinced Kevin to squeeze in some time to share a few non-essential — but still interesting — thoughts about himself.

So, how old are you and where are you from?

How old am I? You did see that I work in Hollywood, right?  I’m forever 39. I was also born in Cleveland, but grew up in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights.

And you went to school at…

I have B.S. degrees in computer science and geology, as well as an M.S. in physics, from Purdue University, a B.S. in physics from Oakland University, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Geophysics and Space Physics from UCLA.

You research the solar system, teach, advise producers on their TV shows and movies. I don’t suppose you have any outside interests. 

My home is practically a menagerie. I have parrots, a dog, a koi pond, and a whole mess of pet rats. I’ve never been shy about posting cute animal pics to my Facebook page, but I was floored last year at Dragon*Con when at least a dozen people approached me, many of whom I’ve never met in person, and the first words out of their mouths were, “Your rats really need their own fan page.”

Mention of Dragon*Con also betrays another interest. I not only work in science fiction, I’m an incorrigible sci-fi nerd. I don’t have the action figures or collectables that some people have, but only because collecting would take time away from my watching, reading and writing time.

I’m a bit of a gym rat too and on Sundays during football season, I drop everything to watch the Packers play.

When did you get start to get interested in the solar system?

When I was a kid, the TV networks used to regularly make each space launch an all-day event. Some of my earliest memories are of those missions. Between that, and growing up wanting to be either Captain Kirk or Commander Koenig, I was destined for a career in space.

Saturn

So you went to Cassini and from there to television. How’d that happen?

My career has been less a smooth trajectory and more a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey sort of thing. When I was a freshman at Purdue, I sat in the grill in Wiley Hall, and laid out my strategy for how I was going to wind up at JPL someday, complete with alternate paths. I was in NROTC at the time, so it looked like I’d be spending a few years in the Navy first, but that was factored into the game plan. An ankle surgery put an end to that.

I ended up following one of my alternate trajectories. I worked for a few years back home, writing video games and then engine control software for both Ford and GM, and got my second degree. The goal was always to go to grad school, get a Ph.D. in planetary science, and wind up at JPL. I was accepted to a Ph.D. program at UCLA, was hired at JPL part time before I graduated, and hired full time after I defended my thesis.

While I was in graduate school, a friend wrote a script for Star Trek: Voyager, back in the days when they took unsolicited manuscripts. They didn’t use our script, but we were invited to pitch stories to the staff writers over at Paramount. When Battlestar Galactica was green-lighted as a series, one of the writers I’d met from Voyager, Bryan Fuller, pitched me as the science advisor. I was hired, thus beginning my parallel career in entertainment.

Kind of like a parallel universe. Obviously, you’ve done a lot. But have you ever had a major fail?

Oh, you betcha! When I was in grad school at UCLA, I worked at the RAND Corporation processing imagery from the Viking Mars orbiters in support of the Mars Observer Mission. That project ended when Mars Observer went, insert silent Kaboom! here, because in space, no one can hear you explode.

That was a major setback for the U.S. Mars program. Although it took a meteorite from Mars, the recent successes of our Mars missions, culminating with the landing of Curiosity, proves we learned from that failure and kept moving forward.

It’s a part or the job that people in robotic exploration don’t like to think about: That you could go into work on any given day only to find that something killed your spacecraft, and you may never know what it was. About five years ago on Cassini, we had scheduled a fun meeting first thing Monday morning because we were expecting some particularly cool imagery, and the downlink was scheduled to end just before work began. We walked into the conference room expecting coffee, donuts and pretty pictures. What we got was an anomaly meeting because the spacecraft had experienced what we call a safing event and failed to phone home.

In the final analysis the spacecraft was, and still is, doing fine. At the time, though, I turned to my boss and said, “I hope we didn’t just discover a new moon.”

A lot of the shows you work on involve alien subjects. Do you think we’re not alone?

Kevin Grazier, Ph.D. I think if you ask any astronomer or planetary scientist if there’s life out there, they’ll say “Yes.” What we find from our studies of other bodies in the Solar System, as well as meteorites delivered to us on Earth, is that Nature assembles the basic building blocks of life, things like amino acids, with surprising ease. I would be surprised if there’s not life somewhere else within the solar system, with candidates like Mars, Titan, Enceladus and Europa.

That said, it’s a gigantic leap between “life” and “intelligent life.” I suspect it’s out there somewhere, since it’s a very big universe. I think we’d all like to think we’re not alone, and that the other beings out there are more E.T. and less Dalek, but I’m not convinced we’ve ever been visited. As a big science fiction fan, I’d love it if we were contacted within my lifetime — as long as it wasn’t by beings who intent was “to serve man.”

For more Kevin:

From the History Channel

Images: Kevin Grazier, NASA/JPL

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