Mark Adler
Mars Exploration Program Architect
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

How I Got Here

I've never really thought of myself being in a "career" so I can't say I ever consciously decided on it. I've never done any of the "career planning" that people sometimes talk about. Instead I've just gone from school to school and job to job always directing myself to what I thought was interesting and fun. That's probably the key for me. If I'm doing something fun, I tend to do it well. If that's career planning, then it's very short-range planning. But it has worked for me (so far).

So any preparation for my job was accidental. Starting with college I got a B.A. degree in Mathematics from the University of Florida. I worked at U.F. for a while on various large and microcomputer jobs while working on my M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering. While at U.F. I did a lot of work on microcomputer applications, including consulting work on medical research applications.

From there I applied for three things. First was a job at Hughes Aircraft, a space contractor in Los Angeles; second was admission to the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech, to get a Ph.D. in physics; and third was a Howard Hughes Fellowship, from Hughes Aircraft, which would pay for the Ph.D. I was accepted to Caltech and I was offered a job at Hughes. I told them "Well, I plan to go to Caltech, but I've applied for this fellowship, so if I get that I could still work for you in the summers and maybe when I graduate." (Working at Hughes in the summers was part of the fellowship.) So, they made sure I got the fellowship and I accepted the fellowship and the job offer. Not a bad deal at all.

I got my Ph.D. in Physics from Caltech, where my thesis title was "The Persistence of Charm in the Relentless Decay of Beauty." It was about the decay of a certain type of subatomic particle, the Beauty-Charm meson into either a Charm-Charm meson or a Strange-Beauty meson (sounds like real life, eh?). Since then I haven't done much work on theoretical particle physics. See, I told you my preparation was accidental. You might also note that my B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. were all in different areas. Another sign of wandering. But not all those who wander are lost. (I stole that from Tolkien.) Turns out that my Ph.D. has proven invaluable in my later work with the very strong physics background it has given me. This is important to just about everything in the space program, as well as strong understanding of statistical inference from limited data (which is how you do science with just a handful of sightings of a new subatomic particle).

While I was working on my Ph.D. I was also working at the Hughes Space and Communications Group in the summers and sometimes a day a week during the school year. That work covered a wide range of things, including the effects of X-ray bursts (from nuclear weapons blasts) on satellite cables and electronics, the development of very high-speed error-correcting codes for communications, and an automobile antitheft key! (Hughes was bought by General Motors somewhere in there). After I got my Ph.D. I went on to work full-time at Hughes, where I did research and development on digital image and video compression techniques for use in such things as direct broadcast TV.

After about a year and half of that, I noticed what I was actually doing. I was working on a technology to inexpensively bring hundreds of channels of utter drivel into every home in the U.S. and beyond (heard of DirecTV? They've since sold millions.) I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. What I wanted to do was something a little more gratifying, like space exploration instead of exploitation (there's nothing wrong with exploitation--it just wasn't what I wanted to do). Hughes Aircraft had been involved in space exploration before, but while I was there the work on Galileo probe had ended, they didn't win Mars Observer, and they stopped bidding on NASA projects. So I left.

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