Four Questions: Richard Cook

Santa Clarita Elementary kindergarteners, from left, Violet Abadi, Liberty French and Lizelle Gonzalez react as "Sammy," the NASA Mars rover model, crawls over their backs during a science assembly presented by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the school in Saugus. Hundreds of local residents work at the NASA-JPL facility, which also relies on parts machined in the Santa Clarita Valley, also. Dan Watson
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Richard Cook, a Canyon Country resident, is associate director for flight projects and mission success at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He was appointed Deputy Director for Solar System Exploration in 2013, after having previously served as manager and deputy manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Project during development and operations. In those capacities, he was responsible for the design, development, launch and operations of the “Curiosity” rover that successfully landed on Mars in August 2012.

What are your responsibilities within JPL-NASA

I’m JPL’s associate director for flight projects, meaning that I’m responsible for overseeing all the projects we are developing plus our ongoing space missions. We explore our solar system and beyond and develop many technologies that enable this type of exploration. My job involves reviewing plans for space missions, making sure any issues that come up are addressed and that the teams have enough resources, meaning people and facilities at JPL. I communicate regularly with NASA Headquarters in Washington to make sure they’re up to speed on our projects. More and more missions involve international collaboration, so I coordinate with multiple international partners at space agencies around the globe.

I’ve heard there are a lot of JPL-NASA employees Santa Clarita Valley. It can be a tough commute, so why do you think it’s such a popular location for members of your team?

I’ve lived in the Santa Clarita Valley for 19 years, and there are quite a few JPLers who live there as well. Most, like me, are drawn by the same things that bring other folks to Santa Clarita — namely, good schools, lots of space, friendly neighbors and a great family atmosphere.

Does JPL-NASA partner with any Santa Clarita Valley contractors, and if so, for what types of projects?

 Yes, we partner with many contractors throughout the Los Angeles Basin, including current work in the Santa Clarita Valley. JPL relies on numerous vendors to design, build, test and operate our flight projects. The contractors range in size from large aerospace companies through small machine shops and specialty-service providers.

What are some of the goals your organization has identified for the next five to 10 years?

NASA and JPL are preparing to launch our next large Mars Rover in the middle of 2020 and expect it to land on Mars in February 2021. We built it at JPL, and we are currently putting it through rigorous testing before we ship it to Cape Canaveral for launch.

It’s the latest in our ongoing series of space missions to explore Mars from orbit and from the surface. InSight landed on the planet in November 2018 on a mission to study the deep interior of Mars. It has been sending back intriguing data, and so has the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012.  We are also working on another large mission to explore one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, to search for habitable zones on the surface or in the subsurface ocean.

Beyond that, we are conducting several other Earth science and astrophysics missions, running NASA’s Deep Space Network (which we use to communicate to mission throughout the solar system) and supporting future NASA campaigns to the Moon and Mars.

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