Jason Tackett is an analyst/programmer for the NASA satellite mission CALIPSO at NASA Langley Research Center. He is a proud member of a team of scientists who develop algorithms for this unique instrument that probes Earth’s atmosphere using pulses of laser light.
I was a musician working at a Pizza Hut before beginning college which, in my case, was synonymous with poor. Looking for a brighter future (i.e., more money), I enrolled at Kansas State University as a computer systems major. The alluring thing about this major for me was that it required creative problem solving and had the promise of big bucks. During my time there I learned about programming and computer hardware.
However, the most important thing to happen to me was a course I took in calculus. Before I started college I assumed that math wasn’t for me. As it turned out, I found mathematics very intuitive. I enjoyed the creativity and elegance that came with problem solving, much like the creativity I enjoyed playing music. My original childhood passion was astronomy, and if I enjoyed mathematics then I reasoned that I could do well studying astronomy or physics.
With this in mind, I wrapped up my associates degree in computer systems and changed majors to physics in which I earned my bachelor’s degree. I became interested in the physics of light and lasers, so I did research as an undergraduate in a high-intensity ultrafast laser facility at the James R. Macdonald Laboratory at Kansas State University. I wrote computer code for graduate researchers that helped with their experiments and also spent six months assembling a laser system.
In graduate school, atmospheric science was an attractive path because I could apply the physics I learned to important problems such as climate and climate change. When I sent out my application to graduate schools, my soon-to-be advisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign saw that I had experience with lasers and thought that I could work with data from the new (at the time) CALIPSO satellite which uses lasers to study the atmosphere. I hadn’t thought about working with satellites before I met him, but because it sounded interesting and involved lasers and the physics of the atmosphere, I jumped on board. I spent the next two years studying CALIPSO measurements to learn how aerosol properties change near clouds – a topic of significant uncertainty in climate science.
Eventually, I was ready to look for a job and, as it happened, an opportunity opened up for an analyst with the CALIPSO science team at NASA Langley Research Center. Since I had been working with CALIPSO data for two years and my interest in optics and aerosols fit in well with the team, I was offered the job, which I eagerly accepted – and every day since I have been glad that I did.
Working for the CALIPSO satellite mission is very exciting. I get to find creative solutions to complicated problems and work with scientists to understand what data from CALIPSO is telling us about Earth’s atmosphere. In April 2010, I worked with colleagues to examine the distribution and optical properties of volcanic ash that had erupted from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull and disrupted air traffic in Europe. NASA Headquarters asked several Earth observing satellite groups, including ours, to help identify plume location and provide guidance to air traffic controllers.
Since I have been with the CALIPSO team, my colleagues and I have also developed products for near-real time air quality monitoring and for climate modelers. I feel immense satisfaction that I work with a team that provides the high quality data that climate researchers need to solve the important issue of climate change.
It hasn’t been a straight path to get where I am today, but I am very happy with where I’ve landed.
Learn more about Earth Science Week and NASA’s Earth Explorers: http://climate.nasa.gov/esw2012/
Guest blogger Bill Patzert, a climatologist at JPL, tells about the personal journey that led him toward a career in Earth science.
I mostly grew up in Gary, Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan (a smallish ocean) surrounded by great Pleistocene sand dunes. Meteorologically, we had blizzards, sweltering summers and even tornadoes.
My dad was a sea captain and taught me celestial navigation, shooting the stars and the sun with a sextant. At night he would point out the North Star and the many constellations and tell me about the mythology of each. This was heady stuff and fascinating for a budding geek. For my generation, Sputnik was huge. We became the first space-nut generation. Sputnik and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL**) Explorer 1 gave many of my classmates and me the 'space bug.'
The opportunity for adventure presented itself in an unusual manner. I'd blown out my knee playing basketball and dropped out of college my freshman year and ran away to sea. I hitchhiked to New York and worked for a seaman's union in Brooklyn. Friends of my dad put me to work on a tramp freighter. I went around the world. I spent a week in Bali surfing and diving, then back across the Pacific through two great big typhoons.
Eventually, I went back to school and double-majored in physics and math at Purdue. I also double-minored in American literature and geology. One winter, I saw this book on surfing in Hawaii. Soon I was headed to Hawaii for graduate school. I got up at five in the morning, went surfing, then off to class and studied in the evening. A few years later, I had earned a doctorate in oceanography and meteorology. After I graduated, I was off to a position at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California - a fantastic research institute and another surfing mecca.
In the 1970s, the vast oceans and the global atmosphere were poorly sampled. Those years were filled with travel for research to Tahiti, islands in the Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, South America, Southeast Asia and many other places I had dreamed of as a boy. I saw much of the world, had great adventures and gained a deep appreciation about the great forces of nature.
In the early 1980s, oceanography was about to enter the space age. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was flying satellites that were revolutionizing weather forecasting and NASA was planning for a suite of ocean-observing spacecraft.
Remembering the excitement of Sputnik and witnessing the birth of America's new space program, I hung up my sea boots and cast my future and fortune with NASA and JPL.
That gamble has been wildly successful. The TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 and Jason-2 ocean satellites have been flying for 20 years. These height-measuring observatories have revolutionized oceanography and climate research.
Although I miss hearing the surf and donning the wetsuit every few days, I really enjoy being at JPL. I love to speak with students, civic and environmental groups, and, even, politicians. After speaking all over Southern California for almost three decades, I'm still surprised and delighted with the people I meet.
Today, there are great issues that must be addressed - climate change, our economy, human rights, poverty and many others. The problems the global community is dealing with now - the deficit, war and poverty - will be dwarfed by climate change, sea-level rise, a warming world, and change in agricultural and rainfall patterns.
What happens when you have nearly sixty million people in California and no water? In the old days, the Anasazi just dispersed throughout the Southwest. Now we're 95% urban. So we're definitely not going to put L.A. in a backpack and move to British Columbia. Climate change is the real deal. I want to contribute to the dialogue and, hopefully, a better future.
Yep, still dreaming here at JPL.
Post by Bill Patzert, Climatologist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (http://science.jpl.nasa.gov/people/Patzert/)
Learn more about Earth Science Week and NASA’s Earth Explorers: http://climate.nasa.gov/esw2012/
If somebody had told me that 2012 would bring with it a deployment to Greenland, Chile, and possibly Antarctica, I never would have believed them. But here I am reflecting back on my three weeks in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, as I pack for Punta Arenas, Chile. These experiences have been made possible by my new assignment as the project manager of a NASA airborne geophysical project called Operation IceBridge (OIB).
I started full-time work with OIB this past March. What I truly enjoy about this project is the remarkably talented and extensive team I work with. As the project manager, I must coordinate and help lead a vast team of experts spread out across the country. This team includes polar scientists, instrument engineers, educational/outreach teams, logistics teams, data centers, and aircraft offices. I have to utilize good leadership and communications skills to help my integrated team work together smoothly to achieve a common goal and meet all of our science objectives.
Twice a year, the OIB team travels to Earth’s polar regions to collect data on the changing ice sheets, glaciers, and sea ice. For the Arctic campaign, we use the P-3B 4-engine turbo-prop airplane at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility. It has been modified to carry nine different science instruments, including laser altimeters, which measure the different heights of the terrain from aircraft, and various types of radar systems that can actually penetrate the thick ice sheets.
Just four weeks after I started as project manager, I found myself landing in a small Southwestern Greenlandic town called Kangerlussuaq. There was snow on the runway and everyone was bundled in coats. The majority of the buildings looked like military barracks. Most of the OIB team was already there, and they greeted me at the plane. At the time, I knew only one person, the project scientist, and we had only spoken a few times! What an adventure awaited me!
Each day, we flew at 1500 feet, seemingly scraping the surface of the massive Greenland ice sheet. I felt as though I could have touched it with my fingers if I had just stretched out my hand. It was beautiful. Watching the team work together like a well-oiled machine, for almost 8 hours at a time, was simply awesome. The pilots, the aircraft maintenance team, and the instrument experts, who collect gigabytes and terabytes of data per flight, collect the invaluable data that tells us what is happening at our poles, and how much the ice is changing each year.
My second trip to collect data with the OIB team began last September. For the Antarctic campaign, we use NASA Dryden Flight Research Center’s DC-8 aircraft and operate out of Punta Arenas, Chile. During this Chilean campaign, we will actually fly from Chile, over specific science target regions in Antarctica, and then land back in Chile! That’s an 11-hour round trip flight almost every day!
Isn’t this exciting? If you want to learn more about what I do and Operation IceBridge’s current Antarctic campaign, join my Google+ Hangout on Wednesday, October 17th from 1-2pm EST. I look forward to talking to you from Chile.
More information: Google+ Hangout with Christy Hansen http://climate.nasa.gov/eswSite/eswEvents/HansenEvent/
Career Spotlight: Christy Hansen http://climate.nasa.gov/eswSite/eswVideos/ChristyHansen/
NASA Earth Science Week Website http://climate.nasa.gov/esw2012/
Operation IceBridge http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/icebridge/index.html