A man is seen with a giant steel tank holding an instrument within.
David Latham stands with the vacuum tank for the HARPS-N spectrograph, an instrument used to measure masses for some of the small planets identified by NASA’s TESS space telescope. HARPS-N is inside a chamber with careful temperature control, and that chamber is itself inside a temperature-controlled room. Nobody is allowed to open the room and go into the chamber, because that would disturb the instrument. Well, almost never … this photo was taken in 2012 during commissioning, when the team was still making adjustments. Credit: David Latham

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

In space, it was the first NASA call for scientists as astronauts. In science, it was high school physics course at the Roxbury Latin School taught by Richard M. Whitney.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I was recruited to the Space Interferometry Mission science working group, then the FAME mission science team (both those missions were cancelled), then became a co-investigator on the successful Kepler mission, and now I'm the director of science for TESS, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I am a senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have been working on the search for planets orbiting nearby stars since 1984, with a recent focus (since 1999) on transiting planets. I also have a joint appointment at Harvard and have taught thousands of students.

Rocket rising into space.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars upward after lifting off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Credit:NASA/Kim Shiflett

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

Kepler and TESS.

What has been your biggest professional challenge and how did you overcome it?

Getting an all-sky survey for nearby transiting systems selected for implementation, namely TESS. It is now in science operations. I first started promoting this idea 13 years ago and never gave up.

Who inspires you?

My students.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Follow your dreams.

What are some fun facts about yourself or something people might not know about you?

I medaled in the International Six Day Trial — an off-road motorcycle event — all four times I rode, from 1971–1974.

What is your favorite space image and why?

The launch of TESS on a Falcon 9 on April 18, 2018, because it was a flawless launch.