Founder Tom McCord’s work will continue here
Tucked away in forested hills 7 miles from Winthrop, the Bear Fight Institute has been a center for the study of our solar system for two decades.
The remote location, far from universities and other research institutions, seemed an unlikely choice for a planetary science research center. But Bear Fight’s founder, physicist Tom McCord, created an institute that has supported scientists working on the forefront of planetary science, exploring the formation, evolution and present state of our solar system.
At the beginning of February, Bear Fight Institute will close the doors of its local research facility. A sale is pending on the house that has served as headquarters for the institute. McCord will continue his ongoing research projects from an office in his home, which is located next door, and plans to construct a new building for an office on his property next summer.
A handful of scientists affiliated with Bear Fight will continue their research from other locations. Although the research center above the Methow Valley will close, Bear Fight Institute will continue as a corporate entity to support ongoing research and contracts awarded through the institute.
It was the secluded setting in the Rendezvous hills outside Winthrop that attracted McCord in 2001. He saw it as a place that would provide tranquil surroundings conducive to basic research and scientific collaboration. So he left his position as a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, to found his own institute.
Working in a 3,000-square-foot converted house, resident scientists at Bear Fight have contributed to the understanding of planets and other objects in the solar system, and have participated in planning and conducting space missions through NASA and international partners. Visiting scientists from around the world have made their way up the winding dirt road to collaborate in ongoing research and attend small conferences and seminars hosted by the institute.
Factors behind move
“It is a bit emotional to leave,” McCord acknowledged in a recent interview. But a number of factors, including impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, convinced him that it was time to close the institute’s physical headquarters in the Rendezvous. “My wife, Carol, and I are trying to simplify our lives … the virus pandemic has added motivation and a vision of how to do it,” McCord said.
The pandemic has forced many people — including resident Bear Fight Institute scientists — to work remotely. It has also halted most types of work-related gatherings and travel. “Most of my professional activities — meetings, conferences, cooperative research — have gone virtual, taking out much of the enjoyable people interactions,” McCord said.
McCord said he has been “downsizing” his professional workload in recent years. “I have gone from being part of six space missions two years ago, to now being a part of two … Mars Express and Europa Clipper.”
Mars Express is a mission led by the European Space Agency, and McCord is a founder and remains involved in the High-Resolution Stereo Camera Investigation for the mission. The Mars Express orbiter reached Mars in 2003, and has been orbiting the planet and performing scientific measurements of the planet’s surface and atmosphere since early 2004.
McCord will continue his work with NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, scheduled to launch in 2024. The Clipper will orbit Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Jupiter’s moon Europa — a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life.
McCord’s involvement in the Europa Clipper mission began in the late 1990s, as leader of the effort at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in California, to develop a Mapping Imaging Spectrometer to put onboard the spacecraft. “But,” McCord said, “NASA didn’t get around to starting the mission until about two years ago,” as he was beginning to consider cutting back his workload.
So, one of his former graduate students (McCord has taught planetary physics at the University of Hawaii and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) replaced him as principal investigator for the mission’s Mapping Imaging Spectrometer. “The deputy PI (principal investigator) is also one of my former graduate students, as are several others on the team. It is like having a family project,” McCord said.
Five scientists are working on research contracts, mostly with NASA, through Bear Fight Institute. Two of the scientists work in California, and three researchers were working mostly on-site at Bear Fight, until pandemic restrictions forced them to work off-site early last year, McCord said. With the Bear Fight facility closing, they will continue their work from other locations, as they have for most of the past year.
“Many contractors work remotely. There has been a movement toward not having a physical address, and then the virus came and accelerated that dramatically,” McCord said.
The pandemic-induced decline in travel to scientific meetings, and the increase in working remotely are likely to continue into the future, even after the pandemic is over, McCord predicts. And that’s a bleak prospect for him.
“It’s going to be a loss for all of society,” he said. “It’s really going to change institutions. The interaction of people is part of the pleasure of being in a profession like this. You get to know people all over the world. The older I get, the more I’m convinced it’s not about science. It’s about people.”
Even before the current trend toward remote work, Bear Fight Institute was a scientific outpost. The institute described itself as “a virtual node in the world of research,” connected through high-speed internet and teleconferencing capabilities to researchers and scientific institutions around the world, and equipped with sophisticated computer and data storage capabilities and software, supported by technical and administrative staff.
During the past two decades, Bear Fight scientists have made significant contributions to understanding the composition, chemistry and evolution of planetary objects, including the Earth. The institute has participated in the planning and execution of international robotic spacecraft missions throughout the solar system. Scientists have focused on making measurements and acquiring new data to analyze at Bear Fight Institute, in cooperation with U.S. and international research colleagues.
McCord’s contributions to space science were recognized in 2013 when he received NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His 60-year career in planetary research extends back to the Apollo space missions.
McCord plans to continue working on his Mars and Europa projects from his new office, which will also provide space for a part-time administrator to support the ongoing work of Bear Fight Institute scientists.
“Who knows, maybe some ambitious young person will show up and lead the charge for the next 20 years,” McCord said. “Nevertheless, this is a transition period … at least for me.”
McCord said he and Carol have chosen to “age in place” in their Rendezvous home, but will stay in touch with friends and colleagues around the world, like so many other people are doing today. “We have a Zoom cocktail hour every Saturday with former grad students and long-time colleagues,” McCord said.