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Robert Pappalardo
Picture of Robert Pappalardo
Robert Pappalardo
Project Scientist
"The most exciting moments are the 'aha moments' when a scientific problem that you've been wrestling with suddenly falls into place and begins to make sense."

Where are you from?
I was raised in Jericho, N.Y. (on Long Island), in the eastern suburbs of New York City.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
The Moon landings had a big influence on me, of course. As a child I was glued to the television set for each launch, landing and splashdown of the Apollo astronauts. Also, my dad would take the family on visits to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. It was a magical place for me. Especially spectacular were the landscape paintings lit with black light and the gigantic ceiling orrery. With this inspiration, I would hang my own homemade models of the planets from my bedroom ceiling. The moons were made of crumpled masking tape on top of toothpicks, which were stuck into the sides of Styrofoam ball planets.

"Follow your dreams,
and if you are dedicated
to your path, the
opportunities will emerge."
Robert Pappalardo

In 1970, my whole family drove down to Virginia to see a solar eclipse -- without me. They left me with my grandparents! (I was 5 years old at the time.) So I showed them by becoming the astronomer in the family. My dad ultimately did make it up to me by sending me to the 1991 solar eclipse in Hawaii. It was mesmerizing and spectacular, like the sun suddenly being replaced by a hole in the sky.

How did you end up working in the space program?
In college at Cornell University, I knew that I wanted to do something related to astronomy, but it was only once I was in college for a couple of years did I realize that there was a field known as planetary geology, which combines planetary science and geology. I learned about it because Carl Sagan was teaching a graduate seminar on the topic, and fortunately he let me sit in on this class. I became interested in icy moon geology through a course taught by Professor Joe Veverka, in which I did a final paper on Ganymede's grooved terrain. This paper was largely based on the work of Professor Veverka's then newly graduated Ph.D. student, Steve Squyres, who now leads the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.

For graduate school I went to Arizona State University in order to work with Professor Ron Greeley, who was a member of the Galileo imaging team. My thesis work there was on the origin of ridges and grooves on icy satellites, focusing on the geology of the uranian satellite Miranda.

The timing for the finish of my graduate work was fortunate, as planning for the Galileo spacecraft's upcoming satellite encounters were just beginning. I worked with Professor Greeley on the initial plans for Galileo's imaging of Jupiter's moon Europa. I then moved on to Brown University as a post-doctoral researcher working with Professor Jim Head, also a member of the Galileo imaging team. At Brown I helped to plan all of the imaging observations for the Ganymede encounters by Galileo from G1 (in 1996) through G29 (in 2000).

I went on to become a faculty member at the University of Colorado in Boulder for about 5 years. Teaching was fun and inspirational, but I couldn't pass up the offer to come to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. to help push along the planning for the next planned mission to Europa -- now known as the Jupiter Europa Orbiter.

Who inspired you?
Scientifically, it was Carl Sagan, of course. I knew of Sagan through his coverage of the Viking landings on Mars, his appearances on "The Johnny Carson Show," and then through his television series "Cosmos" and his outstanding books. I investigated Cornell University as a possible college to attend because Sagan was a professor there. And because he was teaching a planetary geology course, I learned that there was such a field. I had the chance to audit two of his classes, and then to work on a research project under the tutelage of his post-doctoral researcher Reid Thompson. I wouldn't be doing what I am today without Sagan's influence, guidance, and encouragement.

What is a Project Scientist?
A Project Scientist is essentially the lead scientist for a spacecraft mission who is responsible for overseeing the scientific goals and quality of the mission. The Project Scientist speaks for the mission's science to NASA and to the public. He or she is key in organizing how the mission's science will be accomplished. I have been honored to serve as the Project Scientist for a portion of the Cassini mission at Saturn, and now for the planned Jupiter Europa Orbiter. This orbiter will help to address the mysteries of this moon, which is believed to hide a global subsurface ocean.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
The most exciting moments are the "aha moments" when a scientific problem that you've been wrestling with suddenly falls into place and begins to make sense. These "aha moments" tend to come from a mix of hard work, intuition and perseverance. I have been fortunate to have had several such moments in my career, especially when talking through a problem with a colleague -- attacking a problem together from different perspectives and backgrounds can give rise to those key insights that one person wouldn't have thought of alone.

On another front, recently I had the chance to talk with congressional staffers about the fascination of Europa, and about the planned Jupiter Europa Orbiter spacecraft. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring the excitement of planetary exploration to the halls of government.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Follow your heart and your dreams! I can't tell you how many times along the way I was warned of how few jobs there are in planetary science, and how difficult it can be to get one. Such words and advice can discourage those who are not fully dedicated, while those who persevere can attain one of those hard-to-get jobs. Follow your dreams, and if you are dedicated to your path, the opportunities will emerge.

What do you do for fun?
Contra dancing. It is related to square dancing, and similarly is conducted by a caller who instructs the dancing couples, who are positioned in long lines. It has history in English country dancing, but evolved in New England into a fast-paced group dance which resembles a living M.C. Escher drawing. (Check out the link below for more information regarding contra dancing.)

In the past I've painted (oils and acrylics) and played guitar (I'm a folkie at heart), although more recently, work keeps me from doing this as much as I'd like. Occasionally, I'll bike-ride or play tennis. I live in Venice Beach and enjoy walking or biking along the boardwalk and beach there, especially at sunset. And watching my two very cute and amusing cats keeps me entertained at just about any time.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Pay attention in class, and ask questions. Realize that the reason you're in class is not to memorize facts and equations; it's to learn how to think about problems, and how to solve them. If you don't understand the underlying reason for an equation or fact that you are tempted to memorize, ask your teacher about the bigger picture. Maybe this will make your teacher think differently about it, too.


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What is Contra Dancing?

Last Updated: 3 January 2013


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Last Updated: 3 Jan 2013