NASA's Jacob Bleacher '00: 'Never Forget Your Dirty Field Boots'
Before venturing to the moon, it's best to consult with Franklin & Marshall College graduate Jacob Bleacher '00.
"What temperatures are we dealing with? What is it like to get lunar regolith [bedrock] in your gears?" he says.
As chief exploration scientist in NASA's Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD), it's Bleacher's job to bridge technology and architecture to advance human exploration of the moon and beyond. ESDMD manages the human exploration system development for lunar orbital, lunar surface and Mars exploration.
"Science is really the foundational backbone that enables us to build and move forward," he says. "If you build a rocket that goes to the moon, but we can't do any of the science we want to do, then we haven't done a very good job building the hardware."
As speaker for the College's May 13 Commencement, Bleacher will discuss the meaning of opportunity and finding your path — a path he first discovered in an introductory geology course at F&M.
Tell us about your path from F&M to NASA.
I always liked looking at the sky at night, thinking about the vastness of it and what's out there. When I got to F&M, I was still interested in space, but astronomy itself wasn't really the thing I was most interested in. I ended up taking a geology course with Don Wise '53 [NASA scientist and F&M emeritus professor] my freshman year. He showed me that you could actually study planets and the geology of planets, and that was what made it click for me.
I had to learn those fundamentals at F&M, and that earned me a degree in geology. But I always had this vision: What does that mean when I look at a different planet? That's how we talk to astronauts now. It doesn't matter if we land you on Mars or the moon, Venus or Mercury. It doesn't matter which planet you're going to. If you understand the fundamentals of how to think about these processes, you can go to work.
While I was at F&M, I had the opportunity to do an internship at NASA. I always thought that I would be a professor. But coming out of graduate school, I had the opportunity to do a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. I loved it. We were trying to do these bold things that as of today are basically impossible, but when we go do them, they become possible. What else is better than that?
Can you describe your undergraduate NASA internship?
A spacecraft had just arrived at Mars called the Mars Global Surveyor. It had an instrument on it called a laser altimeter. It gave us a really precise map of the topography of Mars— one of the most foundational data products we have now. At the time, they needed some people with a background in geology to basically do data processing.
I can still clearly remember sitting at my desk and Rob Sternberg [emeritus professor of geosciences] coming in and saying, "Hey, I've got this opportunity. This is at NASA, and who knows, it could lead to a career path for you." I packed up my bags to go live at Goddard in Greenbelt. Which for me— being a Lancaster County boy who never went very far away — was kind of a stretch. That was learning to take advantage of opportunities. They're not always comfortable.
Do you hope to travel to space?
You know, I get asked that question all the time. If somebody said, "Hey, do you want to go do this next week?" Absolutely. I would love to go walk around on the moon and pick up moon rocks.
But the people that do that — that's a career. That's a life commitment for them. I really enjoy what I do. I get to work with the astronauts, to train them in geology, and I enjoy participating in that way. And maybe we will get to a point where folks like myself can go fly to the moon, and that will be normal — like flying on an airplane. Maybe it'll be my kids, or their kids. As long as we're working on that path, and I know I've contributed to that, I can look in the mirror and be pretty happy with what I'm doing.
What's the best advice you've received?
Don Wise actually left NASA because he wanted to get back into doing field work. When I went to work for NASA, he told me, "You're going to be looking up at the stars, but never forget your dirty field boots."
I actually train astronauts how to do field work when they land on the moon. My field boots are dirty. So I took that to heart.
A Parallel Path to the Moon
Like Jacob Bleacher, F&M's former emeritus professor of geology Don Wise '53 grew up in Lancaster County but dreamed far beyond its borders.
"He hooked me on geology and space exploration," Bleacher said.
During the early years of the Apollo program, Wise held a position at NASA headquarters as the Apollo chief scientist through the landing of Apollo 11. Wise's role at that time is the closest to Bleacher's current position, chief exploration scientist at NASA.
"He was the one who taught me that knowledge of the rocks on Earth could be applied to how we explore the surfaces of other objects in our solar system. Now, for our Artemis missions to the moon, I'm in almost an identical role, with so many overlaps at F&M," Bleacher said.
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