Published : Wednesday, February 28, 2018 | 7:58 PM
Planetary scientist Linda Spilker has spent 40 years of her life at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, since walking into her job interview in 1977 at age 22 with a fresh Bachelor’s degree in physics from the California State University in Fullerton.
Her first assignment was with the then-brand new mission, Voyager, which she chose over the existing Viking mission at Mars after being told the spacecraft would be going to Jupiter and Saturn, and possibly Uranus and Neptune.
Looking back at that time when she made her choice, she tells science writer Bill Retherford, contributing for Forbes Magazine, that she remembered peering at Saturn through a tiny telescope in third grade, and, intrigued by the planet, she chose Voyager.
“I was particularly interested in Saturn,” she says in the interview. “It had these incredible rings that you could actually see, even with a tiny telescope. And I thought, ‘If they ever built a telescope on the far side of the moon, then I could be an astronaut and go use the telescope to look even further into space.’ I really loved science, I really loved math.”
Since joining JPL and the Voyager mission, Spilker had gone on to get an MS in Physics from the CalState Los Angeles in 1983, and later obtained a Ph.D. in Geophysics and Space Physics from the UCLA in 1992.
Spilker also started her family at JPL, along with a few other women scientists there who were about age who, when they started having kids, called themselves “Voyager Moms.”
She went on to become Project Scientist for the Cassini mission, which NASA launched toward Saturn in 1997 and destroyed in September last year through a controlled descent, until Saturn’s gravity took over; Cassini is believed to have burned into dust while in Saturn’s atmosphere.
Even in September, JPL people have been talking about there being no other spacecraft to study Saturn, its rings, and its fleet of moons, particularly Titan and Enceladus, which have spiked JPL’s fascination further as Cassini was ending, because the mission revealed these two moons could possibly harbor life.
“Enceladus is a tiny world, only about 300 miles across,” Spilker says in the Forbes interview. “From Voyager, we knew Enceladus was bright white and icy, with what looked like a fresh young surface. But the south pole was in darkness, so we missed four large fractures. We’ve nicknamed these fractures ‘tiger stripes.’ And coming out of the tiger stripes are the geysers, jets of material, water vapor and water ice particles, shooting into space. The jets were going off every single day whenever Cassini looked. We flew closer and actually sampled and tasted the gas and the particles. We found out the water was salty, there were organics, there was carbon dioxide – all this incredible information about the ocean coming out to Cassini.”
Cassini didn’t carry any instruments to look for life. Spilker says that will be a future mission’s role: to come back with the instruments to do the experiments and possibly answer the question: “Is there life in the ocean of Enceladus?”
Spilker, with fellow Cassini scientist Morgan Cable, wrote and submitted one of the latest proposals for New Frontiers, a new NASA program to send out more probes into space, including missions to go back to Titan and Enceladus. If approved, they’ll get about $800 million, nuclear-power supplies, and a rocket to make their mission happen.
“We’ve put together a proposal… to go back to Enceladus with the kinds of instruments that you would need to address the questions about the habitability and is there life in the ocean of Enceladus,” Spilker told Business Insider in September. “The mission’s called Enceladus Life Finder.”
Now 62, Spilker describes finding a warm salty ocean beneath Enceladus’ crust as “one of the most astonishing discoveries” in space exploration.
“I feel remarkably lucky. Right place, right time, right education,” she tells Business Insider. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”