Fanson manages a mission that is part of JPL's quest to explore beyond our solar system and look far into the universe.
Q: What is Galaxy Evolution Explorer, or GALEX?
A: GALEX is a telescope in space similar to, but much smaller than, the Hubble Space Telescope. Our mission is to map the history of star formation in the universe, going 80% of the way back to the Big Bang. We think the universe is about 13 billion years old, so we'll be studying galaxies and stars across about 10 billion years of cosmic history.
Q: How will you do this?
A: We'll be surveying the sky using the ultraviolet part of the light spectrum. We'll observe hundreds of thousands of galaxies. Our goal is to determine how far away each galaxy is from us and how fast stars are forming in each galaxy.
Q: Why use ultraviolet?
A: A galaxy's ultraviolet brightness tells us how fast it is forming stars. We're trying to find the stars that have recently formed, and that means looking for stars with a short lifetime because they would have to be young. Those turn out to be the most massive stars, which are so hot they shine in the ultraviolet.
Q: Why do we need to know about star formation?
A: We'd like to understand when the stars that we see today were formed and when the chemical elements that make up our Milky Way Galaxy formed. We know they formed in the interiors of stars, but we don't know when. This will fill in one of the missing pieces of the puzzle to explain how the universe came to be. That's a vital part of our understanding the history of our universe.
Q: What is the status of GALEX?
A: The spacecraft bus is in final assembly at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Germantown, Maryland. Here at JPL, we've begun thermal vacuum testing of the science instrument, which contains the telescope. That means we're simulating the conditions in space by surrounding the telescope with very cold shrouds containing liquid nitrogen to simulate the cold of space. We're making sure the telescope will work properly, that the mechanisms will still turn and that everything will work properly under the conditions of space after GALEX launches in January 2002.
Q: How did you get into the space world?
A: When I was young, in grade school, the space program in the country was approaching the moon landing. About that time, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out. Those dramas made a tremendous impression on me as a child. At that time, I was attending a three-room grade school next to a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, and I would see the cows walking by on their way to pasture every morning. I seemed about as far away from the adventure of space as I could be. I determined then that I wanted to be part of the space adventure.
Q: How did you achieve your dream, going from Wisconsin dairy country to JPL and the world of space?
A: I knew that engineering was what interested me. I had an interest in the mechanics, rockets and the machines of space flight. I studied hard in high school. Then when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin and was looking for a graduate school, I chose Caltech because I knew that Caltech operates JPL and, in fact, in graduate school at Caltech, I did work on some JPL projects.
Q: Any advice for kids who'd like to end up in a similar career?
A: Try to determine what you want to do, what you want to be, work hard and persevere. In America, you can become anything you want.
Q: Managing a space mission is very challenging. How do you de-stress in your free time?
A: I take my mountain bike and ride in the mountains, and I like to ski.