Pace manages JPL's next interplanetary mission, the 2001 Mars Odyssey, shown here during launch preparations at the Kennedy Space Center. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch on April 7.
As a teenager, George Pace loved airplanes. But after the Soviets launched Sputnik when he was a freshman in college, Pace's interest went from airplanes to aerospace. After earning his undergraduate and master of science in engineering degrees from the University of Michigan, Pace joined JPL to work on spacecraft.
At the beginning of his career, he provided analysis and engineering support for JPL-managed flight projects including the Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner and Viking series of missions. Later, he headed the guidance and control section during the development of attitude and articulation control systems for the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft. Pace also served as the spacecraft manager for the Mars Observer and Mars Global Surveyor missions. In 1997, he became the project manager of the Odyssey mission.
Earlier this year, Pace and his wife moved from Southern California to Florida so he could work with the Odyssey team as they ready the spacecraft for its flight to Mars.
Q: What is the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission?
A: The Odyssey mission is the next mission to Mars. It is an orbiter and it will do observations of the surface looking for elements and minerals. It will also measure the radiation background at Mars, radiation that would be harmful to humans.
Q: What do you still have to do to prepare for the April 7 launch?
A: The spacecraft is fueled and ready to go. We've weighed the spacecraft, moved it to the launch pad and completed a functional test out at the pad to make sure everything is working. The next spacecraft activity will be a practice launch countdown [on Saturday, March 31]. Then the next time the spacecraft comes on, it will be the afternoon of April 6 when we turn on for launch.
Q: This must be an exciting yet stressful time for you. What do you do to relieve that stress?
A: (Chuckles) When I have a chance on weekends, I'm going down to see the Dodgers at Vero Beach. We also went over to see the Marlins play last weekend and they were playing the Dodgers - so that was fun. Also, getting down by the ocean and walking on the beach, we do a lot of walking.
Q: What's been the most challenging aspect of this mission for you so far?
A: The most challenging aspect for me has been to keep the team focused because this project has been through a lot of changes. We started off with an orbiter and a lander and it got re-scoped several times. Then of course the '98 missions were lost and at first we were re-scoping the lander, and then we lost the lander mission. [Due to the loss of two spacecraft in 1999, NASA decided to forego the lander and only use an orbiter for this Mars mission.] The project has been through several JPL organizations so the most difficult thing for me has been keeping the team focused on getting the job done.
Q: How did you become interested in space exploration?
A: I always loved airplanes and I went to college intending to be an aeronautical engineer. But Sputnik was launched my freshman year and that kind of changed my whole perspective of what I wanted to do. Instead of airplanes, it turned out to be aerospace.
Q: What advice would you have for young people starting out today wanting to do what you do?
A: Clearly the math and science are important, but don't overlook the other classes like English and things like that because communicating is very important on jobs like this. Being able to express yourself and work with other people, that's as important as any technical knowledge you might bring to the job.
Q: Why do you think the public is so fascinated with Mars in particular?
A: I think of all the planets Mars is most like Earth. It is close to Earth. There is a possibility that water might have existed there, or might even exist there now. It is the planet most likely to support life of some sort --if life does exist elsewhere in the solar system--and that's why we are looking for the water and hopefully looking for the life. So that's what's fascinating.