4 min read

The Ride of a Lifetime

Bill Dunford
Bill Dunford with a full-scale model of one of the Viking Mars landers at the California Science Center.
Sam Dunford

When you mention the Space Age, many people think about the Apollo era of the 1960s. But I say we’re living in the golden age of space exploration right now. In the last decade, we’ve flown missions to Mercury, Venus, Earth’s Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and beyond. At this very moment, there are seven active missions at Mars -- including two rovers and a fleet of five orbiters that both support ground operations and undertake exploration of their own. Another lander is slated to launch in May.

What’s changed is that rather than astronauts, these deep space expeditions are carried out by robots. Robotic spacecraft act as our eyes and hands in the distant, dangerous -- and beautiful -- reaches of the solar system. Technologically astounding yet built by hand, these machines have landed on a comet, returned samples from the surface of an asteroid, tasted the space between the stars, and flown right through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

The best part? We can all ride along with them. Robotic solar system missions send home dispatches from deep space in the form of pictures and other kinds of digital data almost every day. Many mission teams publish this information on the Internet -- sometimes the very same day it’s received on the ground.

I noticed this myself just over a decade ago. I had loved all things space-related since I was a small kid watching Apollo 17 lift off from the lunar surface and taking in star shows with my dad at the Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City. I planned for a career in astronomy, only to discover during high school that math was … not one of my strengths. I studied journalism instead, writing for magazines, newspapers, and eventually a software firm. One day it came to my attention that NASA was still tracking the Voyager probes, which were launched in the ‘70s, out in the dark reaches beyond Pluto. I learned that scientists were, in fact, still receiving useful data on a daily basis, after all these years and at an unimaginable distance. Memories of dazzling pictures from Mars and Jupiter in the ‘70s and ‘80s came rushing back. Then I found out about the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and the Cassini orbiter at Saturn, all of which were sending home mind-blowing picture postcards daily.

To capture it all, I built a website and a desktop app with a simple mission: create a single place (in the days just before social media exploded) to see the latest pictures and news from all of these deep space missions. I called it Riding with Robots on the High Frontier. Soon I added a podcast, and with the help of Alice Wessen’s Public Engagement team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I got to interview luminaries such as Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone, planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle, and Ashwin Vasavada, future Curiosity rover project scientist.

People took notice, especially after Apple featured the Riding with Robots podcast on the home page of the iTunes store. A little community sprung up around it, as we discussed the latest findings at Saturn, or swapped tips about how to process raw images from the mission feeds into beautiful, full-color images to share online. When the European Space Agency published one of my processed images showing the south pole of Mars, I became one of a growing number of people who realized there was room for amateurs to make a real contribution to planetary exploration.

Cappuccino swirls at Mars’ south pole
Cappuccino swirls at Mars’ south pole, as seen by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft.
ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/Bill Dunford

I began to understand there is a worldwide community of space enthusiasts and citizen scientists, and Riding with Robots was part of it. Over and over again, I was impressed by the power of that community to help spread the word about the latest discoveries in space, and touched by the love they expressed for the missions expanding our horizons and they people who fly them.

In 2014, JPL reached out to me about joining their team. Now it’s my privilege to work directly alongside the people who have been my heroes for years: engineers, scientists, planners -- and especially the professional communicators who bring all the beautiful worlds of the solar system to the people of Earth. It’s been a very good ride. Everyone can come along in some form, and there’s no telling how far we’ll go.