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Awaiting the first images from Titan's surface, 1/14/05
We're coming up on the 2-year anniversary of a bad day, when Judge Ernest Hiroshige gave his final ruling against my case against JPL.  But lest anyone think my time at JPL was primarily negative, I thought I would share some of the overwhelmingly good days of my career with the Cassini mission: especially the day the Huygens Probe landed on Titan, Saturn's large moon. It was 10 years ago today, January 14, 2005. I remember it well. Everyone was excited. We were all happy. I was a welcome member of the team back then, four years before the trouble started.  I had been working for Cassini 8 years by that time. I loved the discoveries we were making, often attending the Project Science Group (PSG) meetings, when the instrument scientists from across America and Europe—a Who's Who of planetary scientists—would gather to share their discoveries.  One of the biggest nail-biters of the whole mission was the Huygens Probe landing, 
PictureWith Claudio Sollazzo, his son and the Conners at Vasquez Rocks, Oct. 2000.
The probe was built by the European Space Agency (ESA) but management was shared between ESA and JPL, because the probe, riding piggy-back on the Cassini orbiter, relied on its communication links.  Several Huygens scientists and engineers from Europe spent a few years at JPL preparing for the big day. Among them was Claudio Sollazzo, Chief Operations Officer for the Huygens mission.

One day in Oct. 2000, Claudio's son Robert was out for a visit, and told his dad he wanted to see a California desert. So I took them and Diane Conner and her husband out to Vasquez Rocks (you might recognize the landscape from Star Trek). We hiked around and had a good time. Diane Conner and her husband joined in.  She and I were on friendly terms back then, even though she later testified against me at trial.

It was on that day after the hike that Claudio shared with me a troubling fact: a glitch had been discovered during a periodic probe checkout that would spell doom for the Huygens mission! The probe's transmitter was not built to adjust for Doppler shifts, and its hardwired frequency setting could not be changed via a software upgrade. The probe would surely lose its link with the mother ship, and would sink out of sight below Titan's smog. This would be a disaster, not only for the ESA engineers and scientists who had spent two decades preparing for the mission, but for the world, which would miss out on a historic space first.  

PictureWith flight engineer Ray Weaver at Probe Separation, 12/24/04.
This was an occasion when JPL's reputation for remote problem solving really shined. Over the next few years, flight engineers figured out a solution. They would delay the probe separation till Christmas Eve, take an extra orbit around Titan, and release it so that the orbiter and probe would be traveling at the same speed, perpendicular to Titan. 

This effectively removed the Doppler shift and allowed the transmitter and receiver to communicate as planned.  Mission saved!  We deployed the probe on December 24.  Three weeks later, Mission accomplished!  On January 14, the heat shield worked, the parachutes worked, and the landing went flawlessly. Most of the instruments, launched seven years earlier, switched on as planned and gathered data all the way down to Titan's frozen surface.

PictureJean-Pierre Lebreton at pre-descent briefing, 12/28/04
One very relieved and happy man was Chief Scientist Jean-Pierre Lebreton, who had spent a good 23 years of his life preparing for the 3-hour mission. Can you imagine all that work going down the drain because of an engineering oversight? Fortunately, it all worked... almost all.  The Doppler Wind Experiment (DWE) failed, but data was rescued by earth-based radio telescopes that were able to follow the probe's descent. One of the imager channels failed, but the majority of the images were captured on the good channel, such that a dramatic recreation of the descent could be made based on real photos (you can watch the Beethoven version or the geek version with all the bells and whistles).  It's like riding a flying saucer to the surface of an alien world!
The photo here I took in a briefing 4 days after the probe separation, when Jean-Pierre gave Cassini staff members a preview of the landing and what to expect.  I remember thinking at earlier briefings in prior years how risky a mission this was. It seemed very unlikely to succeed, given how many things could go wrong. I was as relieved as anyone to see it work. I was also excited about the discoveries made, which I promptly reported on Creation-Evolution Headlines on my own time.  For years later, I loved to tell the Huygens story at astronomy clubs and other meetings, showing the pictures and videos and telling about the dramatic, historic landing.

At the briefing shown here, and at many others, I was the only one taking pictures. In fact, I was a bit disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm by some Cassini staff, including members of my System Administration team, who somehow failed to see the historic importance of what we were accomplishing. To some of them, it was just a job. For me, it was making history. I soaked up all this precious science and space history like a sponge, taking notes, taking photos, talking to scientists, and learning all I could. Many of my notebooks contain detailed notes from science briefings. I wasn't just there for the pay, you see; I loved being a part of space history in the making. I loved JPL.

And as I reported often afterwards, the things we discovered did not fit the millions-of-years evolutionary scenario. For instance, scientists had predicted the probe would land on a global ocean (and they hoped it would), so they built it to float. Instead, it landed on moist sand on a world covered in sand dunes. Only a few lakes and river channels were found. For another case, I remember chatting over lunch in 2005 with Dr. Sushil Atreya, atmospheric scientist and chief investigator of the 1995 Galileo Probe. He told me the atmosphere of Titan had a maximum lifetime of 100 million years, just 1/45th the accepted age (4.5 billion years). He had no explanation for why the atmosphere was still there.  I have a long list of other anomalies in the solar system, particularly ones we discovered at Saturn, that are problematic for belief in billions of years.

PictureClaudio Sollazzo at Probe Separation party, 12/24/04
In those happy days 10 years ago, I developed good relationships with Cassini and Huygens people—with one glaring exception. There was a system engineer named Pam who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. One of my team members, who generally got along well with everyone, told me on 3 occasions that Pam was the most difficult person he had ever worked with—and he had supported hundreds of customers in prior jobs. She was "way off the radar" he said.  Pam had a reputation as a type-A "alpha female." Even Program Manager Bob Mitchell had heard that. Pam had a "my way or the highway" attitude, sometimes asking my team to do things that violated JPL security policies. When I, as team lead, objected, she took a strong dislike of me. Another thing: she had the gift of gossip. She spread bad stories about me to her boss Sue and her boss's boss Kathryn.

Years later at my trial, JPL's lawyers dug for dirt in this period of 2004 to 2007. In their attempt to portray me as a stubborn person always saying "no" to everything, they let those three women testify against me in court. Pam seemed to thoroughly enjoy this opportunity to stick in the knife and twist it, even though she knew. and her boss knew, and her boss's boss knew, that I bent over backwards to build a harmonious relationship with them personally and between their offices and our office. I have emails from my office manager Greg Chin (you remember, the one who yelled "Intelligent design is religion!") and Tammy, his deputy, from that period, proving that Pam was causing serious conflicts between her office and our office. It hit me particularly hard because I was in her line of fire, trying to protect my team from her outrageous demands. If I had been the problem, I could have been fired or demoted from team lead, but I remained on as lead even after Pam left. I was only demoted and fired after Margaret's complaint about the intelligent design DVDs (March, 2009).

PictureShaun Standley with Todd Barber, flight engineer
I only bring this up in this post because it touches on my reputation with Claudio Sollazzo and his deputy, Shaun Standley of England. I provided support for their JPL computers and for their remote support computers in Europe. Claudio was known to be outspoken when unhappy with anything, but we had a great relationship. Because of my lead role in computer support for the JPL-ESA computer links, I was often in attendance with him and Shaun at planning meetings, and would help them in their offices or by phone, so they got to know me pretty well.

One day I told them in their office that I was having trouble with Pam and her boss, and that bad things were being said about me around the office. Both Claudio and Shaun were shocked and dismayed. Claudio said, "You're one of the nicest people I've ever had to deal with."  I know this because I recorded it in my notebook on the day he said it: 8/19/04. He said I was responsive and communicates well. Shaun Standley concurred.  We remained on good terms till the day they left JPL.  I was also on good terms with Jean-Pierre Lebreton, though I saw him less often; these were the two head honchos of the Huygens Mission. I could name many other important scientists and engineers that interacted with me often with mutual respect and friendship. In fact, I was the liaison for the instrument team leads across the US and Europe when they needed help with their Science and Operations Computers. One was very sorry when I called him after I was fired; he said I was his "go-to guy." Dr. Candace Hansen, a famous Voyager scientist I assisted with computer support for years, used the same term. (Incidentally, she appears in the last interview in The Privileged Planet DVD's bonus features.)

PictureAt the Huygens celebration party, 3/25/05
Two months after the Huygens landing, all the staff enjoyed a big party in the Von Karman auditorium. Claudio spoke and shared a few of the historic descent images that revealed, for the first time, systems of river channels that looked remarkably like earth landforms. With scale models of Cassini and Huygens inside the room, it was a wonderful time to take pride in what we had accomplished.  I had also been at "Christmas Party" (not Holiday Party) events in this room, and at many Project Science meetings.

In the photos I took of this party, it's bittersweet to see the smiling faces of individuals who years later would testify against me: Margaret and Julie. But they are in the minority. Most of the scientists and engineers and co-workers are people I remember fondly, and I hope the feeling is mutual, even today.

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Huygens Party, with models at right and Titan images on screen.
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Claudio and Shaun at the Huygens Party, 3/25/05
PictureFarewell for Claudio Sollazzo, 5/11/05
His mission complete, Claudio returned home to Italy that May.  At a going-away celebration, Project Manager Bob Mitchell presented him with a plaque as we all applauded a job well done.  He seemed humbled as well as gratified.

Before Claudio left I gave him a copy The Privileged Planet, which he accepted graciously and cheerfully.  I also gave one to Shaun Standley, who remained on at JPL for some years. He liked it so much he bought a copy 10 days later.

These are glimpses into the many good years I had a JPL. They are still fond memories. My main regret is having to leave under a cloud.  It only takes one person to start something that can destroy a reputation.