Who would guess that scuba diving would come in handy in developing space technology? For JPL engineer Lloyd French, going scuba diving was just part of a day's work when he was asked to develop an underwater probe.
"The idea was to create a probe that could travel to the bottom of an ocean and stand up to the immense pressure and cold. Add to this the fact that the probe would be inserted into a live ocean bottom volcano to take pictures. Now that presents some fascinating challenges because I had to help develop a slew of technologies to handle all of these harsh environments." The probe would eventually serve as a prototype for a device to explore beneath the icy crust of Jupiter's moon Europa.
"Once we had a working prototype of this probe, I dove in a special deep diving submersible, 1,800 meters below the surface to Loihi, an undersea island with an active volcano off Hawaii. There we tested the probe under the cold of the ocean with all that pressure and the heat of the volcanic vent. It was amazing!"
Where did French's energy and enthusiasm for mechanical engineering come from? Raised in Oakland, California, French became interested in science and engineering by the sixth grade. "I was heavy into a Lego-Tinker Toy phase and liked to build things up and take them apart. My parents thought I might go into architecture or engineering. What made a difference was when they hooked me up with a family friend who was a self-employed mechanical engineer. He helped me learn what was involved in this profession." In the meantime, French picked up fundamental programming skills from other family friends in the science fields, which provided him with a foundation for his burgeoning computer skills.
"Once I'd found my interest, my parents encouraged me to stay focused in school. This helped considerably and I ended up staying near home and going to the University of California at Berkeley - actually working my way through. I washed dishes at the dining commons, which provided me with free food, I'm happy to say. I also worked as a church gardener and as a computer lab tech at school."
French stayed at Berkeley for his undergraduate and graduate degrees, and it was there that he became interested in JPL. "I guess I was like most seniors, wondering what I was going to do next. After being a student for such a long time it's hard to change gears and know what you're going to do when you leave school. I remember propping my head up on my desk and looking up. On my wall was a big poster of Jupiter that I'd gotten at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The caption caught my eye and I wondered for the first time if I couldn't do something in space exploration. Then I got up and started reading the fine print on the poster and it said the picture came from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory."
After a visit to his school's cooperative education office, French was able to get an internship at JPL. "I began at JPL in thermal dynamics and heat transfer, learning about spacecraft design from a heat transfer perspective, which is good because you gain knowledge about the entire spacecraft and the complete system."
He also pursued other learning environments. "I went to the International Space University, a place that encourages space professionals and people in related fields to share their experiences, talk about the political ramifications of their work and to better understand how the rest of the world pursues space exploration."
Nowadays, French is busy developing underwater explorers. His latest assignment requires him to build on the work of the ocean probe and create a probe that may explore below the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. This probe, called a cryobot, would have to penetrate the moon's icy surface and work its way down to the water below. Instruments on the probe would then study the water and look for activity that might indicate the presence of thermal vents. On Earth, thermal vents indicate that the planet is geologically active.
With success in its early tests, the cryobot is now scheduled for field tests in Greenland, Norway and Antarctica. However, the probe may have possibilities beyond Europa. It recently made NASA's list of 10 mission concepts approved for further study for possible launch to Mars in 2007.
As French prepares for the probe field tests, he is enthusiastic about the possibilities for the future. "That would be really great, taking a new technology to another world to see what we can learn about it."