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  Ben Clark  

Ben Clark

View Ben's Biography


The following interview occurred December 11, 2000 between Genesis Co-Investigator Ben Clark, Lockheed Martin Space Systems-Astronautics Operations, and Senior Program Associate Jacinta Behne, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

J.B. You work as a co-investigator on the Genesis mission. What does this job title mean?

B.C. Co-Investigators are scientists who each have different contributions to make to the Genesis mission. One of my research areas has been the composition of planets. I had the good fortune to have had an instrument on each of the first lander missions to Mars, the two Viking spacecraft that touched down on the red planet in 1976. My devices used a method of measuring energies of x-rays emitted from samples when bombarded by higher energy x-rays. This technique, called x-ray fluorescence, is an extremely powerful method of "seeing" the elements that occur in samples of any type (rocks, powders, soils--even gases). My measurements found silicon, calcium, and many other elements in the Martian soil. The iron content was extremely high, accounting for the rusty red color of Mars. Even more surprising, however, were the very high contents of sulfur and chlorine in the soil, indicating that the salts that are washed by rain into our oceans were still in the soils of Mars. Obviously, I have a strong interest in the elements of the solar system. Genesis will measure the elements that occur in the sun, and from that, the elements that were present when the sun and planets first formed from a huge cloud of gas and dust.

Many of the various co-investigators (Co-I's) on Genesis are renowned scientists in their specialties. Because I spend most of my time working on the engineering and programmatic problems of making spacecraft missions work, I don't get to do as much science as I would like. The principal investigator and father of Genesis is Professor Don Burnett. Don asked me to help out on the collection of radioactive elements that come from the sun. The key leader in this is Co-I Kunihiko Nishiizumi, and I help wherever I can.

J.B. Within Lockheed Martin, you are the project scientist who is responsible for the Discovery program. What is the scope of this work?

B.C. As the Lockheed Martin scientist who is assigned the responsibility for our proposals for new mission concepts for NASA's Discovery missions, I spend much of my time working with scientists from all over the U.S. Many are in universities, and some work for NASA. All are strongly committed to planetary explorations and the discoveries that can be made. Because I have some background in engineering, and work with engineers on a daily basis, I try to find ways that the scientists can get the measurements that need to be made, but with the simplest, lowest cost spacecraft that we can invent. This requires understanding of the status of scientific knowledge of our solar system, as well as an appreciation of the challenges and methods that engineers use to convert these dreams into realities.

J.B. Do you have other responsibilities at Lockheed Martin? If so, what are they?

B.C. At an aerospace corporation such as Lockheed Martin, efficiency is paramount. For this reason, I have more than one assignment. Therefore, I also lead a team of highly talented engineers who conceive all aspects of new missions to the planets, including Mars. We also study exciting missions to comets, asteroids, and the moons of the planets.

J.B. What new science understanding will Genesis provide and what have you found to be the most fascinating thing about the Genesis mission?

B.C. Genesis is an extremely fascinating mission when you realize that we are actually collecting material from the sun without having to dip down into that fiery inferno and scoop up the tenuous matter that resides there. Because the sun "boils off" material, resulting in a stream of ions commonly called "solar wind," it is possible to collect "sun matter" without flying all the way to the sun itself. It was on the Apollo mission to the moon that this concept was first proven. Aluminum foils exposed to space were shown to collect solar wind. Professor Burnett then proposed a mission dedicated to this technique, because the Apollo collections were much too short (days compared to years). He then justified the scientific importance of such a mission to NASA. They selected Genesis! With the Genesis mission, we will for the first time have "large" samples of the sun back on the Earth for scientists to study.

J.B. How did your strong physics background prepare you for the job of co-investigator of the Genesis mission?

B.C. Physics is one of the most powerful and satisfying of the sciences. Physics provides the foundation of most other fields of science, since it deals at the most fundamental levels of matter and energy. Along with mathematics, it provides a background from which one can work in many different fields of science. Many aspects of the Genesis mission involve physics, from the electrical and kinetic properties of the solar wind ions, to the penetration of these high-velocity ions into pure metals and other collectors. Even the complex spacecraft trajectory is mainly an exercise in the physics of motion in the combined gravitational fields of the Earth and the sun. Finally, Genesis measures the quantity and types of atoms in the sun.

J.B. What do you see as the riskiest part of the Genesis mission?

B.C. Many aspects of the Genesis mission must overcome unavoidable risks. Besides the launching of rocket and spacecraft, for Genesis we had to design a capsule that could come back to earth. This has been done before, but not for a vehicle of this size and type of ablator protection system. Discovery is designed for single missions, not a sequence of missions. That is why it is not possible to try out the reentry system before doing the mission--it would be too expensive. Additional things we worry about are the opening and closing of the capsule and the canister, which contains the collection arrays. Moving the arrays around without anything getting stuck is crucial to mission success.

J.B. What does your everyday work life look like?

B.C. My daily work involves a lot of teamwork and lots of communication. This means that much of the time I find myself in meetings, or on the telephone, or creating e-mail messages, or responding to e-mails from other people. To develop and fly a space mission requires the efforts of several hundred engineers and scientists, each with their own contributions to make. The greatest challenge of all is the person-to-person communications to make sure that everyone is aware of the latest results and the designs.

J.B. How does someone prepare to be a chief scientist of flight systems? Is there college preparatory work that serves to help in achieving this role?

B.C. In my position of Chief Scientist of flight systems at Lockheed Martin Astronautics, I have found that my broad-based education in physics, chemistry, and biology has been invaluable. Education does not stop with school. Even after college, there are always new discoveries, plus many new techniques and methods of investigation being developed. When I was in college, the laser had just been invented and was mainly a laboratory curiosity. Who would have thought that it would figure so prominently in future technologies, from lightning-fast high bandwidth telecommunications to laser printers? Who would have guessed that Mars would be such a constantly surprising planet, or that Europa would harbor an ocean? Who would think that you could find out the chemical composition of the sun by exposing silicon plates in space?

In other words, an incurable curiosity and delight in discovery is what drives scientists to work hard and long at their jobs. An interest in finding out about the world and how it works is the best qualification. Keeping current means going to scientific meetings, reading papers, and getting to know many different scientists to find out their priorities for future study.

J.B. What career path led you to your current scope of work at Lockheed Martin Corporation?

B.C. In college, I was in the Air Force ROTC. After obtaining a master's degree in physics, I went on active duty for three years. The Air Force assigned me to a group who was studying the radiation hazards of space flight to humans. It was here that I gained an interest in biology as well as physics. After completing my tour, I went to Columbia University to work for my Ph.D. in biophysics. My thesis involved designing a special x-ray source that could target the DNA in cells. After school, I went to work for an aerospace company. During this time, the Viking mission to Mars was being prepared, and scientists were asked if they had good ideas for experiments. My proposal was to use the x-ray fluorescence technique to measure the composition of Martian soil. Soon after joining Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin Corporation, my experiment was selected for Viking. As a result, I was in the unique position of being the first person to know what Martian soil was made of.

From my experience in designing experiments, and as a result of working with many other scientists, I am in a position that is often useful when our aerospace engineering teams work on new planetary science projects. I particularly try to help the scientists get all the results they need, but without unnecessary or low-payoff complications. Likewise, I try to get the engineers to understand the purposes of the science measurements and even to contribute to better science through ideas they come up with for improvements.

J.B. Have there been surprises in your education and career history?

B.C. As you can see from my previous answer, my path was not predictable. Sometimes I wish I had stayed in more fundamental biophysics, where I may have been able to make a contribution to human health in the fields of molecular biological research and the development of new treatments.

J.B. What is your family life like? What leisure time activities to you do for fun?

B.C. Even though my profession is very demanding, taking lots of time for work and study, as well as business travel, I have a really excellent family life. My wife and I have been married now for 35 years, and have raised two fine children. Since she is from another country, it enabled me to learn another country's language, heritage, and differing outlooks on life. We travel there often and also to other interesting countries, where we can explore beautiful landscapes and the monumental accomplishments that people all over the world have achieved. We like to walk. We like to talk to people to learn about their culture, and how they enjoy life. Special activities I have enjoyed include playing tennis, watching football (and playing it when I was younger), and scuba diving. My wife and I also like to keep healthy through good eating habits and taking opportunities for being active, including swimming and health club exercise. I don't read many novels, but do enjoy books about the nature of life.

J.B. What advice can you offer to young scientists and engineers?

B.C. My advice is to learn your subjects, but most importantly learn how to apply the knowledge you gain. The brain is more than just a storehouse of information. Over the years, it should become a rich repository of knowledge and experience, which can be applied to many different situations. It is desirable to gain a mixture of experiences between doing one or a few things very well, to trying to get at least a little experience in many different things. Don't avoid challenges. See how far you can go. Then look for help. When you need it, there is far more help available than you might imagine.

Build your skills. Learn how to make things and how to test them out. I remember being strongly encouraged by my father to study both typing and public speaking--two skills I didn't expect to need in science or engineering. Little did I realize back then how these fields would become so dependent on having skills at the computer keyboard or in making presentations. Another skill to cultivate is writing. You won't get far if you cannot compose well. You will need it for writing the proposals that will get you future work, for putting together good reports and presentations, and for arguing the points that you believe in.

J.B. Are there keys to success that you would like to share?

B.C. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. But hard work and dedication can make up for many weak areas or shortcomings. In fact, you only rarely see someone who has reached success without having had to strive for it diligently over a long period of time.

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Curator: Aimee Meyer
Updated: November 2009

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