McCord reflects on a career of ‘mounting expeditions like Lewis and Clark’
By ANN McCREARY
Planetary scientist Thomas McCord of Winthrop says he’s “lucky” to have entered the world of space science when he did, nearly 50 years ago. The past five decades have been an era of pioneering exploration and discoveries, and McCord has been in the thick of it.
Founder of Bear Fight Institute, a planetary science research center in the hills above Winthrop, McCord began developing a technique for analyzing the composition of planetary objects as a graduate student in the 1960s. His pioneering research in reflectance spectroscopy created a new way of seeing and understanding objects in our solar system, and is more than ever at the heart of solar system exploration.
A few weeks ago, McCord received an email from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) informing him that he’d been selected for the highest award given by the national space agency to a non-government individual. He was disbelieving initially, suspecting spam.
“This is a big deal, totally unexpected. I called NASA. I asked, ‘Is this real, and how did this happen?’” McCord said in a recent interview.
Last week in Washington, D.C., he was honored with NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal for “exceptional and sustained scientific achievement in understanding the origin and evolution of planetary bodies including the Moon, Mars, Vesta, Ceres, Titan and Europa.”
The award honors a long career that began, perhaps, when a teenaged Tom McCord was getting soaked to the skin in a sleeting rain while shoveling corn off a truck in his small (450-residents) home town of Elverson, Penn.
“I thought, there’s got to be something better to do,” McCord recalled. He had recently graduated from high school in a class of seven students at the same one-room school his father had attended. He had no vision for his future, knowing only that “I needed new experiences and to change my scenery.”
McCord joined the U.S. Air Force and while stationed in Kansas he had what he describes as “an epiphany: I suddenly knew I wanted to be a physicist!” To this day he’s not sure how he came to that realization, but said his father was probably an influence. His father had always wanted to be a chemist, but graduating from high school in the depths of the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity to go to college.
While serving in the Air Force, McCord began taking courses at an all-girls Catholic college near the base. He achieved the “change of scenery” he sought by volunteering to serve on the Greenland ice cap, where he was able to continue taking college classes from visiting professors.
After leaving the Air Force, he attended Pennsylvania State University, completing his bachelor of science degree in physics in just over two years. He applied to the California Institute of Technology for graduate school in 1964, not because it was an esteemed institution, but because “it was farthest away from Pennsylvania and the in-laws I had just acquired.” (Tom and Carol have been married for more than 50 years.)
At Caltech, McCord was urged to join “the then almost non-existent field of planetary science.” This was an era of science driven by several factors, including a generation of scientists produced during or soon after WWII, research initiatives related to the Cold War, and President Kennedy’s announcement of the Apollo Program and plans to send a man to the moon.
“NASA realized they needed a cadre of scientists … chemists, physicists” to support the moon mission. McCord was in the right place at the right time, and began working closely with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory under its new assignment as NASA’s center for solar system exploration.
Founding a field
McCord had begun focusing his research on reflectance spectroscopy as a tool for exploring the solar system. This technique allows scientists to analyze objects in space using the study of light wavelengths that are reflected or scattered from a solid, liquid, or gas.
“In another timely piece of luck,” McCord said, “when I started at Caltech the technology of electronic detection that we have in our cell phones and cameras today was just beginning to develop.” He remembers the government giving scientists at Caltech “black boxes that contained infrared electronic detectors,” but forbade the scientists to open them because the equipment was classified.
McCord conceptualized a groundbreaking approach – developing reflectance spectroscopy techniques using electronic detectors to remotely determine the surface composition of distant solid objects in space. “That was the field I founded,” he said.
Information obtained through this technique helps scientists understand how the planets, including Earth, and other objects in space formed and evolved.
McCord was lured from Caltech to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught planetary physics and led a team of 30 researchers using his spectroscopy techniques to investigate objects in the solar system. McCord developed methods for interpreting the data, specifying the kinds of observations to be made, and providing the technical requirements to design the spectroscopy instruments.
At first using ground-based telescopes, McCord moved the technology to spacecrafts flown to investigate the moon, Mars, the Jupiter and Saturn systems, and Vesta and Ceres – protoplanets in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
“Now I do entirely spacecraft work,” McCord said. He is currently involved in four active space missions, communicating with scientists around the world from Bear Fight Institute.
During a now-completed mission in which he was a team member, the Chandrayaan-1 mission to orbit the moon, reflectance spectroscopy produced the remarkable discovery of water on the lunar surface, McCord said.
At 74, McCord is involved in missions that can span decades. An example is the “Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer” on the Galileo spacecraft that orbited Jupiter, and was to be carried into space on a space shuttle. Authorized by NASA in 1976, the Galileo program was delayed following the shuttle Challenger explosion, and it was 20 years later that Galileo and the spectrometer finally reached Jupiter.
“A space mission can span a career, and if you’re in the middle of your career when you start, you may not live to see the end,” McCord said. “Twenty or 30 years for a flagship mission is not usual. It’s exploration, not just science. We’re mounting expeditions like Lewis and Clark.”
To carry that exploration forward, McCord said, the next generation of scientists needs to be cultivated, just as he was while a graduate student at Caltech. Working with students has provided the greatest career satisfaction for McCord, who taught at MIT and the University of Hawaii, where he operated the famous telescope on Mauna Kea volcano.
“To me the students are the key contribution we [scientists] make,” McCord said. He’s mentored 25 graduate students over the years, and some now have grad students that they are training. “I have grad students and great-grad students,” McCord said.
Unfortunately, McCord said, the future for today’s planetary scientists doesn’t look as promising as it did when he was in college. Public universities are suffering from severe cuts in funding and loss of research money, and funding for NASA and future space exploration has been decimated by budget cuts.
“NASA’s manned mission was partly damaged by loss of purpose, and the unmanned program has seen an even steeper decline in funding. The president’s budget … has solar system exploration practically going out of business. The pipeline [for future missions] is woefully empty,” McCord said.
His dream for the future of space exploration is a mission to Europa, a satellite of Jupiter that is believed to have a “liquid ocean beneath the crust” and may be able to support life as we know it on Earth, McCord said.
The mission proposed by U.S. and European planetary scientists would orbit Europa “to determine the thickness of the crust and determine where you would land to access the ocean,” McCord said.
He’s not optimistic, though, that political leaders will provide the funding needed for the mission.
“NASA does not have the funding, even though august science institutions have declared this should be the next mission,” McCord said.
Despite his concern about the future of research into the solar system, McCord retains his passion for discovery. “It’s been a great 50 years!” he said.