An Interview with Steven Joy

Meet Dawn's manager of the Dawn Science Center at UCLA, Steven Joy.
The following interview is an interview conducted by Education and Public Outreach team member Jacinta Behne (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning—;McREL)
Steve Joy

JB: What is your job description related to Dawn?

SJ: I’m Steven Joy and I’m the manager of the Dawn Science Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). My job is really to be the liaison between scientists and the Mission Operations Team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who are the people commanding the spacecraft.

JB: Tell me about UCLA, JPL, and how UCLA is connected.

SJ: In terms of the project, UCLA is connected to the Dawn Mission because the Principal Investigator or PI, the man who runs the project, is based out of UCLA.  UCLA is conveniently located very close to JPL—;we’re both in Los Angeles, just across town from each other.  JPL is the institution in NASA that manages most of the planetary missions. UCLA has been involved with many different missions throughout the last 40 years of space exploration. Chris Russell, the PI for Dawn, has been involved with the space sciences at NASA since the 1960’s during the earliest days of space exploration.

JB: You were mentioning that you’re also liaison to the spacecraft...

SJ: No, the spacecraft itself is built at Orbital Sciences and I’m not directly involved with that part of the mission. I work with the science side of the spacecraft. The science instruments are built at various research institutions around the country and around the globe. Two of the instruments are European. The Framing Camera is built in Germany and the Visual and Infrared Spectrometer (VIR) instrument is built in Italy. UCLA primarily builds magnetometers, and other types of fields and particles instruments, none of which are on the Dawn spacecraft.

JB: What is your role with the Dawn Science Center?

SJ: My role at the Dawn Science Center is to work with the scientists to help them acquire the data that they need to understand the objects we’re studying—;Vesta and Ceres, and Mars when we fly by. Our job is to work with the scientists to capture what it is they need to acquire scientifically. Then, we help translate those desires into specific commands to instruments and spacecraft that will tell the spacecraft to turn this direction, point the camera over there, take the pictures, when exactly to take the pictures and in what sequences to take them in. Also, we have to make sure that anything that we do in commanding the spacecraft to acquire data doesn’t endanger the spacecraft. We need to make sure the spacecraft remains healthy and vibrant and allows us to continue working in the future because if we make a mistake, we could lose something that’s very valuable. So we need to be very careful about how we do things.

JB: What is it that you are finding now or anticipate to be the most exciting part of your job?

SJ: I’m really looking forward to studying an asteroid up closeI expect the most exciting part of my work in the Dawn Mission will be when we get to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres and really looking up close at asteroid data. I’m going to be exposed to new data sets that I’ve never worked with in the past. Most of my experience has been with Jupiter and Earth and the other missions and the data sets that I’ve worked with are going to be very different from the types of data sets that Dawn is going to be generating. So, I look forward to exposing myself to new things, new challenges. 

JB: My son is in the third grade and just the other day he asked me, “What’s a data set?” and I didn’t really know how to explain it to him.  What would be a good way to tell him what it is, what it represents, what it can do?

SJ: A data set is the complete collection of observations and documentation necessary to understand those observations in order to do science. A bunch of numbers by themselves is of no use to anyone.  Scientists need to understand the instruments that acquire data, the instrument calibration, and any processing that has been done to the data. Data, documentation, software, calibration, geometry – all of these things together form a space science data set.

Frequently, in order to understand a problem you need many data sets. Each data set gives you a piece of the puzzle and it takes all of the pieces of the puzzle to see the whole picture. That’s why we have to go back to places that we’ve been before, like Mars, again and again. Each time, we acquire another few pieces of the puzzle. We’re trying to put it all together and develop an understanding of the big picture and not just the individual pieces. 

JB: How far out is the spacecraft going in space?

SJ: The spacecraft is going to go about 3 times as far from the sun as the Earth is from the sun.  It’s quite a ways out there. It’s beyond Mars; it’s not as far as Jupiter.  We’re going to be out there in the middle of the asteroid belt and the way that we communicate with the spacecraft is with HUGE antennas. Many of you have satellite dishes on the roofs of your houses and they’re about the size of a trash can lid. They’re not particularly big systems.  The systems that we use—;the antennas that we need to speak with our spacecraft, some of them—;the small ones—;are 30 meters long. That’s about 100 feet—;that’s a pretty big trash can lid!  The big ones are 70 meters long.  That’s approaching the size of a football field.  That’s a real big dish to have out on top of your house!  So we don’t really have them at UCLA or at JPL. These large antennas are in fairly remote locations. The Goldstone station is in California in the Mojave Desert. There are stations in Spain, outside of Madrid, and another in Canberra, Australia. They’re located all over the world because we need to see the spacecraft at different times of day and parts of the sky.  You can’t look at everything from one view. In order to maintain communications with distant spacecraft, you have to look from the right part of the Earth and look in the right direction.

JB: What is the Deep Space Network?

SJ: The network of giant satellite dishes is called the Deep Space Network and it’s designed to communicate with spacecraft. As I mentioned before, there are 3 main facilities located around the world that form the Deep Space Network. Each facility has several antennas.

JB: How did you get interested in planets in general?

SJ: Well, I came to planetary science in a very roundabout way. I started out as a geologist working in the oil industry, actually. In my research, I developed techniques for dealing with multiple instruments and dealing with datasets from many different instruments in order to understand a particular problem. When the oil industry collapsed in about the late 80’s for the second time during my 20’s, I decided that maybe it was time to reconsider my career.  There was a position available at UCLA for someone to come in and manage an organization known as The Planetary Data System (PDS). The goal was trying to disseminate planetary data which had been closely held for many years by the scientists who had acquired the data; to try and get that data out to all of the researchers in the planetary sciences. PDS has done that for the last 15 years or so.  And so I became involved with them and worked at UCLA in that capacity. I still work part-time for the PDS in addition to my work on Dawn. My role in the PDS is similar to my role on Dawn. I help manage the interface between the science community and the missions.

JB: I’m 20 years old and I have to declare my major next month at the university and I’m thinking about planetary science.  What would you say to me?

SJ: As a young person looking for a career, I thought I might be interested in Planetary Science, but wasn’t quite sure. The way I would approach that is by taking a variety of different science classes. At the undergraduate level, I’d take an introductory class in Geology.  I’d take a class in astronomy. I would take some physics and chemistry courses and mathematics to support them because you can’t do any of it without the mathematics.  And I would also take computer science courses. I’ve learned a little bit about programming a computer—;not just being a user that clicks on Microsoft Word or something, but somebody who actually understands the internals of how computers work. Because, once you get that training, then you can start to say, “I like this science; I like that science.” And then, try to focus yourself on what types of things interest you.

The other thing that I would suggest doing is going to various talks. All of the departments have seminars in different research areas. Go and find out what excites you. Some people find working in the laboratory exciting. For others, it might be working in the field, or working with the computer—;find out what excites you and pursue it. Whatever you do, get a broad base of training in the sciences before you finalize your decision. There is so much pressure at a very young age to try to figure out what we might want to do many years later. It’s a tough time. Look at me. I didn’t start into the space sciences until my late 20’s well after I completed my undergraduate degree. 

JB: If I were interested in geology and considering a career in space science, what should I do to make that kind of career change?

SJ: Anybody that has a good background in fundamental science – in physics, in computer sciences or in engineering—;has the freedom to really move around within the sciences according to their interests. You have to be willing to re-educate yourself, to spend a lot of time learning about a new science (not necessarily the one you studied). Your education gives you the tools to continue on and learn new things and redefine yourself as you see fit. So, if you find that you have a good fundamental education in science, physics and mathematics, the doors are open to you. You can do what you choose. 

JB: Is there anything that you’d like to add about your work, about space sciences, about robotic missions?

SJ: I would like NASA to spend more resources on the outer solar system. We’ve focused very much in recent years on Mars, a little bit on Jupiter, and we’ve had a lot of missions recently to comets and asteroids. We’ve never been to Pluto, although there is a spacecraft on its way. We should be going back to Neptune and Uranus. We’ve only been to each of them once and we were there for only a matter of hours. The outer solar system is difficult to study because it takes a long time to get there but I think that the rewards of going would be high. As interesting as Mars and the Moon are, I would really like to see a little bit more of the solar system than just our nearest neighbors.

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