Dr. Simon "Pete" Worden

Before becoming NASA Ames Research Center Director, Dr. Worden was a Research Professor of Astronomy, Optical Sciences, and Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, where his research involved the development of large space optics for national security and scientific purposes. Dr. Worden retired in 2004 after 29 years of active service in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a Brigadier General. He is a recognized expert on civil and military space issues, and has authored or co-authored more than 150 scientific technical papers in astrophysics, space sciences, and strategic studies. Dr. Worden also serves as a scientific co-investigator for two NASA space science missions.

NASA Tech Briefs:

How does Ames promote the President’s Vision for Space Exploration?

Dr. Worden: Ames has major responsibilities in the recently assigned work across the agency. In particular, we are going to be performing a number of functions for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. We have the lead role for defining and developing the thermal protection systems. We also will be playing a lead role in information technology for the effort.

In addition, we’ve been assigned to work on developing concepts for small robotic spacecraft for lunar exploration. And then, of course, we are quite excited that we have the lead in developing the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite; “LCROSS” for short.

NTB: How have the challenges of NASA’s recent re-organization been met at Ames?

Dr. Worden: Well, being new, it’s fair to say that I wasn’t constrained in any manner by the old way of doing business. It has worked out quite well. It’s also fair to say that my predecessors had done a lot at Ames in orienting us in a way that we could support the Vision for Space Exploration. The re-organization has been met very well at Ames, and it fits very well in the mindset of both us here at NASA Ames as well as the community with which we work.

The most important thing is the recognition that the Centers and Center Directors have a redefined function. I see my job as much like the department chairman at a university. Having come from the University of Arizona, it is fairly straightforward. I have institutional resources that I need to orient in such a way as to maximize our ability to support the Vision for Space Exploration.

At the same time, I have increased responsibilities in ensuring technical excellence is met, that the authority that’s vested in a Center Director, or a department chair at a university, are met. I control the hiring and moving around of people, making sure that we assign the right facilities and equipment, and that the infrastructure is in place. Conversely, in this function, I am a lot like a CEO. I’ve been given what might be called “bidding proposal money” and investment accounts, and the use of some of the personnel here.

Being in the center of Silicon Valley, Ames is in a prime location to develop some very good entrepreneurial opportunities. Ames has embraced and is in great shape on this front; as an example, we’ve established the Ames Research Park. Silicon Valley is one of the powerhouses of the US economy, and we’re right in the middle of it. We’re able to form alliances and cooperate with several dozen Silicon Valley firms, all the way from some pretty big ones like Google, to some small start-ups. This has been quite an exciting opportunity in allowing Ames and me to play a key entrepreneurial role in NASA.

NTB: Congratulations on Ames’ Future ATM Concepts Evaluation Tool (FACET) being awarded NASA’s 2006 Software of the Year. Could you explain what FACET is and how it works?

Dr. Worden: FACET is a flexible software tool, and it provides very powerful simulation capabilities. One can rapidly generate thousands of aircraft trajectories. What this enables the air traffic controllers in the United States, or anywhere for that matter, to do is to manage traffic flows anywhere.

The fascinating thing about this effort was that they were able to use actual air traffic data from the FAA and weather information from NOAA. Users can analyze the flight plan and predict the trajectories for the climb, cruise, and descent phases of each aircraft type, and manage some 15,000 aircraft on a single desktop or laptop computer. This drives a lot of the application in relation to air traffic management issues and holds the promise of a lot more on-time departures and arrivals. That’s important to anybody who has to fly.

NTB: How might the technology for some of Ames’s major projects be used in commercial applications?

Dr. Worden: One of the more exciting things that happens at NASA, particularly here at Ames, is looking not only at the things we can do to extend human presence into the solar system, but also to bring that information back to Earth. We’re in discussion with folks like Google on projects like Google Earth and on a similar Ames effort called World Wind.

World Wind is a terrestrial database that is a combination of things. Any time somebody wants to find out something about the environment where they live, or a map, or something else, they’re getting it on these Websites. To move that forward, a lot of the data involved comes from some of NASA’s exploration-related efforts. While Google has made a proprietary effort in Google Earth, World Wind is an open source application that gives users similar data; open source is where people can go develop things and the software can be made available and continue to be developed. At the same time, efforts like this would allow entrepreneurs such as Google to retain intellectual property rights for key efforts and frankly, make some money. This is an effort that is very exciting and has potential.

Another example is the Virtual Environment Interface for Remote Inspection. This is one of the concepts that Dr. Steve Ellis here at Ames is studying, and this has a number of applications, particularly telesurgery, control of unmanned aerial vehicles, and more issues related to air traffic control. These are the kinds of efforts that are coming out of a lot of the space-related applications that NASA does with regard to day-to-day life here on Earth.

One thing that has not been fully defined that the agency is heavily involved in developing is what we’re going to do about Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) or asteroids. This is an area that Congress mandated NASA take a good look at, particularly the detection and characterization of potentially threatening, small NEOs. These are objects that are down to 100 meters in size that hit the planet every so often, and the last one we know of that hit, in 1908, had the force of several megatons and flattened a forest in Siberia at Tunguska. We are very deeply involved here at Ames, along with some of the other centers, in supporting studies at NASA Headquarters as to how we might meet this issue. And indeed, in the end, NASA has been asked that if we detect one of these things, what should we do about mitigating it? This is an exciting effort—I think it is about as exciting as you can get, trying to figure out how to play cosmic two-shot billiards.

From the ground, large telescopes that are already being built by the Defense Department, the National Science Foundation, and others will be able to search the entire sky every few nights and can find some of these NEOs, supplemented by low-cost, large optic systems that we can build over the next few years in space. These instruments can find, within a decade or so, 90% of the potentially threatening objects that are down to 100 meters in diameter. It’s a daunting task; there are probably several hundred thousand of those objects. That’s the first step.

Secondly, you need to fully characterize NEOs. I’m excited that there are possible satellites, down to a few tens of kilograms, that could be sent, rendezvous, and orbit these NEOs to characterize them. I’m sure we’ll find a few dozen NEOs that are potentially threatening in the next few centuries. With data from these small satellites, we can figure how to advise this country and other countries on a plan of action. This is truly an international problem.

On that front, we are discussing with the European Space Agency a potential joint mission. The ESA is considering an NEO mission, originally proposed by the Spaniards, called “Don Quixote.” We could, potentially, be partners with them in this program. It is a very exciting set of technologies that plays well to the areas of expertise we have at Ames. Of course, we are not unique; some of the other centers have a lot to add to the NEO problem as well. These joint ventures are a new thing coming down the pike.

NTB: What are the primary goals for Ames in the future?

Dr. Worden: Well, I think I’m on record for saying that Ames is the coolest place to be, and NASA is the coolest place to be in the US government. The number-one objective here is to play a central role in the Vision for Space Exploration, and with the new assignments and tasks, we’re going to be doing that.

Second, I think Ames is the ideal location to be an impetus for small, low-cost missions. Now, to be sure, some of these small missions can’t do everything, but they can nevertheless do a lot. They provide us an opportunity for the third major effort at Ames, which is to be at the lead of private sector and entrepreneurial development of space. Indeed, if you can do a small, low-cost mission in 12 to 24 months, it would be very interesting to some of the entrepreneurial space efforts that are just now getting started. The Vision for Space Exploration is the basis from which everything else flows, and our specific areas of attention are going to be on the smaller, lower-cost, fast-paced end — and because of that, we will be pushing very hard on the entrepreneurial space sector.

I might add that it’s not just space. We have long been, and continue to be, a real lead in aerospace technology across the board. Our aeronautical systems efforts are world-class and will continue to be so. In particular, we are very interested in hypersonics development. That is one field where I think there is a lot of potential for applications on Earth, applications for when we get to Mars and for Martian exploration. We’ve seen some entrepreneurial possibilities in this area as well as relevance for the Vision for Space Exploration.

Additionally, I think the most exciting thing that is not a specific program is the ability to really get the private sector and entrepreneurs involved in the Vision for Space Exploration. If we can get on board the spirit and resources that made Silicon Valley the powerhouse of the country and, indeed, the world, and get that same spirit involved in space exploration, I think it would be unbelievably powerful not only for NASA, but our country. I’m optimistic; we’ve already got some good footholds where we can start bringing this to the forefront.

I might add that when I talk to these entrepreneurs, they are all young men and women who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars. Now they want to make it real. I think the number-one thing is bringing the private sector truly on board in the Vision for Space Exploration. And we have a good start on that.

For more information, contact Dr. Worden’s office at 650-604-5062.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2006 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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