New Millennium Program


Dr. Steven Chien—Space Technology 6, ASE Lead Technologist

Computer Scientist Helps Spacecraft to "See"

Dr. Steve Chien hopes that "flying blind" will be a thing of the past for NASA's future unmanned spacecraft. This may be accomplished with the use of artificial intelligence and the advanced instrument software that he helped to develop——the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment (ASE), also called "Sciencecraft." This leading edge technology will improve a spacecraft's ability to make intelligent decisions on what information to gather and what to send back to the ground. All without help from humans!

Dr. Steve Chien
Space Technology 6's
Dr. Steve Chien.

Chien helped to build the ASE model, which has been flying on the New Millennium Program's (NMP) Earth Observer 1 since March of 2004. During this flight Chien explains that the ASE team has learned a lot about how spacecraft work, why they are challenging to operate, and why the flight software is so hard to do right. "It's sort of like debugging code running on a computer in another room," he says, "and only getting to go in to look at the runs once every few hours."

Chien considers the development of Sciencecraft to be one of the greatest achievements of his career to date——that, and helping to build a world-class research and development group at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Now technical group supervisor of JPL's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Group and Principal Computer Scientist in the Exploration Systems Autonomy Section, Chien came to JPL in 1990. His first job at the Laboratory was working on intelligent monitoring systems for space station life support.

Prior to working at JPL, Chien owned a software consulting business, which he began upon completing his undergraduate work in computer science at University of Illinois (U of I). Both of Chien's parents, who immigrated from China in 1950 to attend school and stayed on, had encouraged young Steve's interest in computers. However, a consulting business was a far cry from his boyhood ambition of becoming a jet fighter pilot!

In addition to flying, Steve had also dreamed of becoming a world famous researcher, following in his father's footsteps. An early researcher (in the 1970s) and principal in AI research for ten years, Steve's father spent some time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT, in addition to teaching electrical engineering at the U of I.

Everything seemed to click for Steve years later as he attended graduate school. When he heard JPL's Richard Doyle lecturing on interesting problems relating to space exploration, he became intrigued with the space program. So, upon completing his doctorate, Dr. Chien joined JPL, where he has since earned a number of awards. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor with the Department of Computer Science / University of Southern California and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California Los Angeles.

When he's not building autonomous systems Steve likes to travel, often carving through fresh powder on some faraway mountain. And, when not on the ski slopes, he can be found behind a camera lens, honing his amateur photography skills. While relaxing at home, Steve enjoys basketball. In fact, when asked what alternative career he might now choose for himself, he replied, "I'd like to play in the NBA."

Steve also enjoys mentoring people, helping others to grow professionally and personally. For himself, Steve is highly satisfied with his career achievements and has no "do over" wishes at this time, but hopes to continue "growing" his knowledge and professionalism. Personally, he explains, "My goal is to be happy, maintain balance between work and play, and to positively affect everyone that I interact with."

Written by Sandi Beck.

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