NASA Engineer Shares Love of Space With City Club

Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK Todd Barber, a senior propulsion engineer at NASA’s JPL facility in La Cañada Flintridge, talks about his work on the Voyager program and other space exploration missions during the San Marino City Club’s meeting last week.
Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
Todd Barber, a senior propulsion engineer at NASA’s JPL facility in La Cañada Flintridge, talks about his work on the Voyager program and other space exploration missions during the San Marino City Club’s meeting last week.

Todd Barber, the curious 8th-grader in Wichita, Kansas, who was visiting his grandmother’s home one weekend, stumbled upon an issue of National Geographic magazine that had featured the then-recent launch of Voyagers 1 and 2 toward our solar system’s gas and ice giants.
Barber, speaking before the San Marino City Club last week as NASA JPL’s senior propulsion engineer, said that was the beginning of his path to the present day, when he spends his time at the office supporting the Voyager mission that continues more than four decades later.
“As soon as I saw that in 8th grade, I said, ‘This is my destiny,’” Barber told the audience. “I’ve been here 28½ years. I worked seven years on Galileo. I followed that up with 21 years on Cassini. Unbelievably, 41 years after launch, that 8th-grade boy made his childhood dream of working on the Voyager project.”
The original Voyager mission was to send the two spacecraft — launched 16 days apart in 1977 — on fly-by research missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, to take advantage of a unique alignment that would allow all four planets to be explored in one 12-year mission. Voyager 2 flew by all four planets (and remains the only craft to have flown by Uranus and Neptune), while Voyager 1 altered course at Saturn to more closely examine its moon Titan before continuing on toward interstellar space.
Although the Voyagers’ initial mission was accomplished on schedule, the two craft have been given additional missions since and continue to transmit data to Earth even after crossing the heliosphere into interstellar space.
“The only two objects ever built that are truly in the space among the stars now,” Barber observed. “Every day our Voyagers go, they set a new distance record.”
Voyager provided the first high-definition photographs of Jupiter, where the craft also studied the planet’s myriad moons, which “stole the show” even against the backdrop of Jupiter’s intrigue, Barber said. That chapter whetted our appetite for the 1997 Cassini mission, for which Barber ran the propulsion team for its 20-year run.
“What a fantastic ride that was,” Barber reflected.
What Voyager 2 told scientists about Uranus, Barber said, was that she was the “plain Jane” of the universe who, again, had more to offer in her moons.
“Those are interesting worlds in their own right,” he said. “Heavily cratered, but some hints there are some other surface processes.”
The next stop in Neptune introduced scientists to its Great Dark Spot and a closer look at its largest moon, Triton. (“That was nice, especially after the blandness of Uranus,” Barber quipped, again underselling the latter planet.)
The two craft soldiered on afterward , becoming humanity’s most distant explorers. Barber said the primary challenge now includes figuring out which functions to prioritize in order to maximize the remaining energy for the craft. His team still talks to both spacecraft daily, with transmissions to Voyager 1 taking 20 hours and to Voyager 2 taking 17.
Traveling at 36,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft would be demolished if they struck an object as small as a pea. With the craft powered on 1975 technology, Barber said the smartphones in our pockets have 250,000 times the memory and computing power of the Voyagers.
“That’s our goal, to keep these two ancient spacecraft alive,” he said. “We’re trying every trick in the book. Voyager 2 is more of our problem child, and ironically, it is because it has one instrument that is working that isn’t working on Voyager 1.”
Barber’s résumé is a who’s who of space exploration. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering in 1984 and 1990 from MIT, he joined NASA’s Galileo mission, guiding the spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit in 1995. In addition to his time with Cassini, Barber also was the impactor propulsion engineer for Deep Impact, a craft that was crashed into a comet in 2005 and assisted in the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, which landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012.
An audience member queried Barber on the timeline for the Voyager craft.
“When do I have to get a real job, in other words,” Barber jokingly responded. “I think if we’re very lucky, we’ll get to the 50th anniversary.”
Ending his talk introspectively, Barber drew attention to Earth Day to cap off his talk.
“We have to remember to take care of Earth and take care of each other,” he said. “If we mess it up here badly enough, these two objects may be the only proof that humans existed.”

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