December 26th, 2010

Home and Career

Born in Chester, raised first in the wirral then further south as a kid, most of my formative years were spent in rural Gloucestershire at home or at Rendcomb College. I set out to University to study Electronic Engineering at the University of Birmingham, but rapidly discovered that it wasn’t for me. I went hunting for a course involving multimedia content at Birmingham, but came up empty and ended up moving to Demontfort University in Leicester.

After graduating, and via a story that involves a Citroen 2CV, a pig called Bob and a field in Hampshire, I started working for a Medical E-Learning company initially as an animator.  This progressed into Multimedia Production, filming, editing, media management, dvd production and so on. It was a fascinating and occasionally frustrating job which took me to see some extraordinary things and meet some remarkable people.

In late 2008 I asked to go to 4 days a week so I could chase some of the projects I was interested in (see below) and fortunately, management agreed from the beginning of 2009.  This gave me the time to travel to JPL, work on animating science data,work on the book I’d always wanted to do of MER. Those 52 spare days I had in 2009 set the stage for things to come.

In the fall of 2009 and with a shrinking order book, the firm needed to drop one of its producers. I volunteered, in the hope that I could pull something together with the various contents and little side projects I had .  Soon after, I applied for a post at JPL , and after an interview trip in January 2010 - I was offered a role as a Producer in the Visualization Technologies Applications and Development group.   Dream job. Dream place. Emigrating 5,500 miles was a no brainer.   I moved to Pasadena, CA at the end of April 2010 and very quickly discovered it to be a place I happily call home.  The friends I had made because of UMSF (see below) are now my neighbours and colleagues.   I am lucky and thankful to have found the intersection of my abilities and interests such that going to work isn’t like working at all.

My main role is the middle man between our group of programmers and 3D artists, and the engineers and scientists on flight projects.  Everything I’ve read about and learnt over the last 15 years is becoming useful.  Much of my time has gone into Eyes on the Solar System, but I’m also a technical consultant for rendered animations and have even animated a few JPL derived data sets for media and public outreach.

I hope I can carry on making everything JPL does more comprehensible and relevant to the general public.  Robotic spacecraft, where they go and what they do are a challenge to convey to masses.  I’m having the time of my life trying to do just that.

Space Enthusiasm

The summer before I set out for University, Mars Pathfinder touched down. I. Was. Hooked. I had been interested in space before then - I even had a small 4 inch reflecting telescope (that has now found a new home courtesy of freecycle). Pathfinder, however, was something new. I think the engineering is what drew me to it. Sojourner was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I went to a local business that sold 56k internet access for $20 an hour and downloaded the early panoramas, printed them out on a 24 pin dot matrix printer and showed everyone. I even tried tidying up that rough and ready first panorama. I still today, have that rought and ready pan, as it was on the Pathfinder website, with channels not quite lined up, in a little frame. That image set me on a road that led to UMSF.

Fast forward to 2003 - I had set up a Yahoo! Group to discuss the Beagle 2 Lander. I hadn’t really looked into the Mars Exploration Rovers a great deal, but I loved Beagle 2. I sent a small good-luck card to the control team at the Space Centre here in Leicester. Clearly I cursed the whole thing because as history recalls, Beagle 2 failed. I didn’t know all the MER imagery was due to go online…but come Jan ‘04 - I saw these JPG coming down the pipe and thought ‘I should make some mosaics of this’ and did. Finding nowhere to share them, I downloaded and installed the Invision forum software onto some webspace I had set aside for some computer game things I had planned on doing - and this became

I don’t remember ‘pimping’ that old forum a great deal.  People started visiting, discussing the images, sharing their own - and that’s how it went for 12 months. Slow growth. I added sub-forums for Cassini. Then other missions. Soon I realised that the site need to move to a proper hosting package of its own, and from somewhere ( again, I can’t remember how ) I came up with - not as a statement against manned spaceflight ( of which I am a supporter ) - just because that’s what it was about.  Forums need rules, and UMSF has a few. They’re strict, they involve kicking people out if they’re not playing by them or quite literally, if they rub the admin team the wrong way.  This attracts a lot of flack and abuse.  It’s worth it.  There are a thousand fora out there where you can talk about just about anything you like in any way you like.  Only one of them will you find an invite from a Co-I to suggest observations for an $800M spacecraft to take during a flyby of Jupiter, and it’s because of the method of admin that that can happen.

I got some admins on board to help out, and then the odd email would arrive, from people I knew of ( scientists and engineers from NASA ) saying that they liked the forum and thought the stuff on it was great. At that point (and one email in particular ) I knew I had something worth looking after, and was the custodian of something special. From those emails came some fantastic opportunities - to meet some MER science team when they’ve visited the UK, and conduct Q’n'A sessions with them for people to download and listen to.

At the beginning of ‘08, on the 4th birthday of the forum, and as the clock ticked to 100,000 posts, I thought it was time UMSF left the hosting nest. The Phoenix landing of May ‘08 , and the swathe of lunar missions towards the end of ‘08 meant that the forum would be busier than ever and the cheap hosting package we had would be insufficient to cope. I put out an appeal, to ask for cash to rent a dedicated server of our own, hoping that by the Autumn we would have enough. It took less than two weeks. So at the beginning of May ‘08 - UMSF moved to its own server.

After moving to Pasadena to work at JPL - I wanted to eliminate any potentially perceived conflict of interest between my working within the very facility that so much of UMSF discussed. In the fall of 2010 I handed the keys of UMSF over to become a project of The Planetary Society. This gives the forum a sound financial footing, and lets the creations of the forum members get a public airing.  It’s in very safe hands.

Talk , Write

Towards the end of 2004, I thought I would have a go at talking about the rovers to amateur astronomers. I did a talk about both rovers to the Leicester University Astronomy Society - and have since done many talks for local astronomy societies, schools, the British Astronomical Association and for 90 glorious seconds, the institution that is The Sky at Night.

One of the lead admins at UMSF is The Planetary Societies Science & Technology Coordinator, Emily Lakdawalla. In the lead up to her planned maternity leave in the autumn of ‘06 - she asked if I would guest-blog for her on the societies website. I was at first nervous at the idea, but took the opportunity to represent the society at the International Astronautical Congress in Valencia and blogged my way through the week. Since then I have blogged again in Europe at the Mars flyby of Rosetta and the Europlanet Conference in 2007 and 2008. I’ve also had a couple of articles published in ‘The Planetary Report’.

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