LCF Scientist Takes Lead on Mars Mission

Photos by Wes Woods II / OUTLOOK  La Cañada Flintridge resident Brian Muirhead, the chief architect for NASA’s Mars Sample Return operation, said the mission is in keeping with JPL’s adventurous spirit.
Photos by Wes Woods II / OUTLOOK
La Cañada Flintridge resident Brian Muirhead, the chief architect for NASA’s Mars Sample Return operation, said the mission is in keeping with JPL’s adventurous spirit.

La Cañada Flintridge resident Brian Muirhead, the chief architect for NASA’s Mars Sample Return operation, has his eyes set on the Red Planet.
The Mars Sample Return, according to the NASA-JPL website, is a proposed mission to bring samples from the surface of Mars to Earth. The mission would use robotic systems and a Mars ascent rocket to collect and send samples of Martian rocks, soils and atmosphere to Earth for detailed chemical and physical analysis.
“It’s the culmination of the scientific exploration of Mars,” Muirhead said. “It’s going to do things we can’t do on Mars.”
Muirhead was speaking at NASA-JPL after a “State of NASA” event on Monday. He described the Mars Sample Return as “challenging and exciting” while noting that the achievement wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.
“JPL does things that have never been done before,” he said. “This is our hallmark.”
The Mars Sample Return is a natural extension of the Mars Rover 2020 project that is expected to launch from Florida in July 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021 before exploring the planet. It will store samples of soils and rocks in sealed tubes for the return to Earth.
During the “State of NASA” address on Monday, Austin Nicholas, the Mars Sample Return Lead Mission Engineer, said an orbiter will be launched from Earth in 2026 to Mars. It will go to the sample container — placed in space by a rocket — with its contents being brought back to earth in 2031.
Muirhead said he was the flight systems manager and project manager of the Mars Pathfinder that landed July 4, 1997 on the planet.
“A lot of people didn’t think we could do it,” Muirhead said. “But that mission has started the excitement about Mars exploration. All the rovers since then have been built on what we did there.”
Prototypes are currently being developed for the Mars Sample Return.
“As the chief architect for the campaign, it’s been my job over the last two years to work here at JPL and around the rest of NASA and with the European space agency to architect how to do this campaign,” Muirhead said. “It has many moving pieces. They’re all interrelated in one way. It’s like building a house. You want an architect for a house that’s sound, that’s going to meet all the needs of the families, that’s going to meet all the needs of surviving earthquakes and providing all the services and capabilities that you need. That’s all the same thing we’re trying to do here.”
Eric Kulczycki, also a La Cañada Flintridge resident who lives in the Sagebrush area, is a robotics lead for the Mars Sample Return who focuses mostly on robotics elements.
“This is one of those missions that I personally want to see it through,” said Kulczycki, who has been doing research for the Mars project since 2014. “I want to have my name on it. I want it to see success.”
In an email on Tuesday, NASA spokesperson Grey Hautaluoma said they are still working out budget costs for the Mars Sample Return.
“Mars Sample Return is still in pre-Phase A, which means we will be completing our pre-formulation studies and finalizing our partnership agreements this spring with our international and commercial partners,” Hautaluoma said.
Muirhead added that at its peak, JPL could employ the equivalent of a few hundred engineers on Mars Sample Return. That number is complemented by a significant number of engineers at other NASA centers and industry, he said.
Generally, the overall budget for NASA-JPL is about $2 billion, said Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA Associate Administrator. There are nearly 6,000 total employees, he said.
A 35-year resident of LCF, Muirhead said he decided to first move to the area because he had gotten married and wanted to live nearby for the schools.
“It’s a great place,” Muirhead said. “I had two girls born here in LCF and they went through the Child Educational Center all the way through the high school.”
At JPL, he said the environment was a unique one.
“We joke about it but if it doesn’t sound impossible, we’re not interested,” Muirhead said. “That’s really what we specialize in and why we attract such great people.”
The goal of the Mars Sample Project is to find evidence that life showed up on Mars.
“We believe that’s very likely,” Muirhead said. “Whenever we see water on Earth we see life. The water (on Mars) is gone but a lot of it was there at one time. Did life show up there? It seems logical. But it’s not active there now. That’s why we’re bringing the samples back and analyzing them at labs that can look at tiny, tiny amounts of material and say, ‘There’s the evidence we’re looking for.’”

Leave a Reply