Jim Graf '72 has put Mars under surveillance.
Graf, a director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a subsidiary of NASA located at Caltech, prepared a camera that reached orbit around Mars in 2005 and is still beaming back photos. Scientists combine the photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with the information gathered from landing craft to answer questions about how the surface of Mars has been modified.
"We have the largest camera we've ever sent to another planet," Graf said in an interview. "Working on a planetary project is a real blast — you get to do things no one else has done before ... We write the science books."
Nearly 40 years ago, Graf arrived at Princeton with the intention to work on something related to space. He completed his senior thesis on electronic propulsion and went on to pursue a master's degree at Colorado State University on the same topic. Afterward, he began working at the JPL focusing, once again, on electronic propulsion.
"He certainly spent a lot of time in the E-Quad," recalled Peter Wendell '72, one of Graf's roommates during his time at Princeton. "He was just always interested in [the JPL]."
Graf has worked in various roles at the JPL, from designing ion thruster technology to directing 1,000 employees as the project manager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. During his tenure, he's been awarded NASA's Outstanding Leadership Medal and an Aviation Week magazine's 1999 Laurel for Space.
"He picked a good team [for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter]," Richard Zurek, a fellow project scientist, said. "A good manager isn't afraid to pick strong voices."
Now Graf has been promoted from project manager of the orbiter to deputy director of the Earth Science and Technology Directorate. Instead of sending hardware to orbit other planets, his new job will keep his attention closer to home.
Graf's previous project in the Earth Science and Technology team, the "quick scatterometer," successfully launched a satellite to measure the wind over the ocean. That project was built within one year of its approval and still flies today.
"[Graf] was always one to meet the problems head on," Zurek said.
Among the new missions he will direct is a project measuring carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Additionally, the Earth Science and Technology Directorate will continue its cooperative mission with the French space agency to measure the height of the oceans, a program critical to understanding ocean circulation.
Even as Graf moves on, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — containing the highest-resolution camera ever to orbit Mars — will continue contributing pictures to help scientists understand the surface of Mars. The orbiter should be operational until at least December 2010.
Describing his friend's work, Wendell said, "It was a labor of love, but boy, was it a great labor."
"The interesting thing about doing investigations about Mars is that we answer a question and that always opens up new questions," Graf said.
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