Deep Science, Deep Woods
Exploring space from the upper Rendezvous
7/17/2013: McCord wins NASA highest honor. more >>
B. McCord has worked
on the icecap in Greenland and on top of Mauna Kea on
the volcanic Big Island of Hawaii. But when it came
time for this distinguished physicist to find a new
place to pursue cutting edge space science, improbable
as it may seem, he chose a secluded, forested hillside
in the Methow.
his office up the Rendezvous, Thomas B. McCord, director
of the Bear Fight Institute, tracks NASA's Dawn spacecraft
mission, which he founded, to Vesta, a "dwarf
planet" twice as far from the sun as Earth. Dawn
is now 140,000 miles from its late-July meeting with
Vesta and will follow its orbit around the sun for
a year before moving on to explore Ceres.
“It really is a pretty place,”
he says of the Methow Valley. “It doesn’t wear thin.”
he decided to leave the University of Hawaii for the
Methow with his wife, Carol, in 2002, “We sold the
car, we sold the house, the dog died and we came here
because we already had a house here,” says McCord, who
bought property in the Methow in 1991 on a first-time
visit to friends.
“The valley actually is far
richer than people think,” says McCord, commenting on
the diversity of interesting, accomplished but not always
well-known people who have made it their home. Its geography
is open, “not just two walls,” he adds; there are lots
of private spots like his in which to settle.
be no better example of how worldwide linkups have been
made possible in isolated rural areas by the internet
revolution than McCord’s Bear Fight Institute, which
sits on 100 forested acres up the Rendezvous. From there
he accesses a secure server at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, where he’s a Distinguished Visiting Scientist,
and keeps tabs on the space missions he’s involved in.
those have been the Cassini-Huygens to orbit Saturn,
Mars Express to orbit Mars, Rosetta to study a comet
up close, and the Chandrayaan -1 moon mission led by
India. On that one, “We discovered water on the moon,”
McCord is 72, so he’s been
involved in many more. He and the instruments he’s designed
have played a significant role in space discoveries.
He correctly predicted the composition of lava flows
on the moon before astronauts got there, and he discovered
that salty minerals cover much of Europa, Jupiter’s
When he began his career,
telescopes were the big thing for studying space. Later
his specialty became designing spectrometers that use
light to reveal the composition of surfaces on planetary
and other objects.
Forty years ago he deduced
that Vesta, which was thought to be an asteroid, was
really what some scientists now call a “dwarf planet.”
McCord – and, among others, his colleague and now Rendezvous
neighbor John Adams - detected its “basaltic” composition,
which means it has melted. So it had to have had heat
inside, which rules out an asteroid, according to McCord.
It took him 15 years to persuade NASA to go look, and
today he’s monitoring the voyage of the Dawn spacecraft
from his office in the Methow woods as it approaches
a first-of-its kind meeting with Vesta.
After Vesta, Dawn will link
up with Ceres, which McCord says interests him even
more because of the likelihood that there’s “a lot of
water on it.”
Tiring of university administration
duties, he wanted to do his own thing but had questions
about whether the institute approach would work: “If
you build it, will they come? Will NASA continue to
fund an eccentric old man living in the wilderness?”
Yes, on both counts.
The institute is housed in
a large, renovated house with several offices and banks
of high-speed computers. Bookshelves are filled with
tomes on astronomy and science, and the walls decorated
with t-shirts and posters memorializing many of the
NASA missions McCord has worked on.
He grew up in rural
Pennsylvania and was the only member of his high school
graduating class to attend college. His father liked
science, and his mother taught him to shoot. He likes
to hunt, fish and play the piano.
While serving in the
Air Force McCord had an “epiphany” that he wanted to
become a physicist. At first this meant solid state
physics, but he became intrigued with space exploration.
That took him from a tenured professorship at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology to the University of Hawaii,
where, as a recognized expert on telescopes, he was
asked to renovate the famed Mauna Kea telescope.
McCord and Carol, who was
its president, previously owned a firm that produced
hardware and software for imaging systems. The Department
of Defense was among its clients. McCord designed an
early version of some of the sensing instrumentation
used on current Air Force drones as well as imaging
systems that provide views of submerged coral reefs
and croplands, for example.
still proposes space missions to NASA after researching
their justification and feasibility. The six full-time
employees at the institute are joined from time to time
by other scientists and post-graduate students interested
in exploring the surfaces of solar system objects and
how to develop the information needed to launch space
missions to research them.
“Is it too far? What is the
payload? What instruments do you need? Are they feasible?
What does it cost?” are among the questions the students
are trained to research, says McCord.
Asked to name his
most exciting project, McCord says, “I like mentoring
young people.” About 25 of his doctoral students now
compete with him for NASA contracts, he laughs. “You
foster your own demise by creating grad students, and
mine are really good.
“I have great-great-grad
students. It’s almost like a family reunion” when they
all get together to work on the same projects, he adds.
“That’s the most satisfying thing. I guess I’m the father
of this whole field.”