Santa Clarita Resident Richard Cook Moves Up at JPL

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at "Namib Dune.” Santa Clarita resident Richard Cook was responsible for the design, development, launch and operations of the Curiosity Mars rover, which successfully landed on Mars in Aug. 2012. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Santa Clarita resident Richard Cook has been named to the key position of associate director for Flight Projects and Mission Success at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Prior to his new role, Cook served as JPL’s deputy director for Solar System Exploration since 2013.

He also held several JPL leadership positions in the Mars Exploration Program, including manager and deputy manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Project during development and operations.

In those roles, he was responsible for design, development, launch and operations of the Curiosity rover, which successfully landed on Mars in August 2012 and continues beaming back images and data.

Before that, he held positions on the Mars Exploration Rover Project (the Spirit and Opportunity rovers), Mars Surveyor Operations Project (including Mars Global Surveyor and Mars ’98) and the Mars Pathfinder mission.

Cook took time from his busy schedule to answer questions about his job and some of the projects that he’s been working on:

What is your average day like?

I’m just moving from one job to the other, so work has been very hectic of late as I learn about my new tasks and try to finish up old ones.  In both cases, however, I spend most of my time meeting with project teams to help them make progress towards launch or try to resolve any major problems they have. I also spend a fair amount of time back at NASA headquarters in Washington talking about our projects with senior NASA management.

What does a deputy director of Solar System Exploration do?

As the deputy and later acting director, I was responsible for overseeing many of JPL’s planetary missions including Cassini, Juno, Insight and Europa. Some of these projects are in operations, some are being built and are nearly ready for launch, and others are just in the concept phase where we are coming up with the basic idea and trying to get NASA’s approval to proceed.

What kinds of challenges will you face in your new position as associate director for flight projects and mission success?

The primary focus of the new job is to look after all of JPL’s projects, not just the solar system projects.  So I’ll get more involved in the Earth science and astronomy missions we conduct as well.

Did the Curiosity rover execute tasks that were different from those performed by Spirit and Opportunity?

Yes, Curiosity is focused on looking for signs of ancient habitable environments on Mars, whereas Spirit and Opportunity were looking to see if liquid water had existed on Mars in the past. All of them were doing geology, but Curiosity can also look for chemical evidence of ancient life.

What new information was gathered by Curiosity?

Among other things, Curiosity did find evidence of ancient habitable environments. The freshwater lakebed environment analyzed by the rover offered all of the chemical ingredients necessary for life and also a chemical energy source that is used by many microbes on Earth.

What exciting projects are you looking forward to?

Our next mission to Mars will be the InSight lander to investigate the deep interior of the Red Planet. I’m also looking forward to our next Mars rover mission, which will launch in 2020 and carry equipment to obtain samples that potentially may be returned to Earth someday as part of a follow-on mission. Beyond that, we are working on an orbiter mission that will take a close-up look at Europa in the next decade.  We are also looking at sending a lander to Europa soon after to land and begin exploring for potential life there.

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