Portrait of Richard Elphic

Richard Elphic

Principal investigator | NASA's Ames Research Center

Education: University of California, Los Angeles, doctorate degree in geophysics and space physics
Hometown: Redlands, California
What inspired you to join NASA? The opportunity to head to the Moon with new missions to answer old questions and raise new ones.
Favorite beverage, food, or fuel: A toasted sesame bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese; brain-jolting, full-bodied dark roast coffee.

Richard Elphic is a planetary research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. He is the Principal investigator of the Neutron Spectrometer System, or NSS, instrument on NASA's upcoming VIPER lunar rover.

When NASA launched Pioneer Venus in 1978, it became the first NASA mission Rick participated in during graduate school at UCLA. He then moved to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he developed his expertise in neutron spectroscopy while working on NASA's Lunar Prospector, a mission that provided strong clues to the presence of water at the poles of the Moon. Rick likes hiking, biking, jogging, and beachcombing.

Read More About Richard

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Redlands, California.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

I was somewhat aware of the early manned space program (Mercury and Gemini); however it wasn't until Apollo that I became completely riveted on outer space. I soaked up every moment I could of all the TV broadcasts and news. Apollo really hooked me on space for life.

Also -- like a lot of kids in those days -- I owned a telescope. I remember viewing the moon during the Apollo years: Viewing the moon when humans were walking on it -- awesome! -- I wish kids could do that today.

How did you end up working in the space program?

It's been a long, weird trip. In college I thought astrophysics was cool, so I pursued that for my bachelor's degree (you could say that I'm half-astrophysicist). However, when I was heading to graduate school I became interested in planetary exploration -- planetary science was really exploding around that time. I therefore went to UCLA for graduate work and had the great fortune of working with Christopher Russell on Pioneer Venus, an Ames Research Center (ARC) planetary mission. Working on this mission and with Chris was such a blast.

After receiving my Ph.D. in Geophysics and Space Physics, I worked on other missions, mostly in the area of space-physics research. However, it was during this time period that new missions were slow in coming, so a friend of mine persuaded me to go to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where they were working on instruments for Department of Defense (DOD) missions, as well as NASA flight opportunities. Working with the DOD opened the door to an entirely different culture and society of really smart, talented, capable people who wore Air Force uniforms; the way you do business there is a lot different than within the civil space-science sector! It was a great experience!

Viewing the moon when humans were walking on it - awesome!

Richard elphic

Richard elphic

Principal Investigator

Later at Los Alamos, a huge opportunity opened up when (more good fortune) Bill Feldman generously invited me to participate in NASA's Lunar Prospector mission (another Ames mission!). It was a spectacular success and I got hooked on using neutrons and gamma rays to see what makes up the moon and the planets. This kind of orbital remote geochemistry is relatively new: In 1998, Lunar Prospector provided the first global neutron and gamma ray maps of the moon. These measurements brought a whole new slant on how the moon formed and how it has evolved over the past 4.5 billion years.

Shortly afterward Bill also involved me in the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission, working with another neutron spectrometer. This effort led to maps of water abundance on the surface of Mars, which showed that water ice is far more abundant at the poles than previously thought. Mars Odyssey also revealed extensive provinces where hydrous minerals, salts and clays may have been deposited earlier in Mars' history.

I left Los Alamos to join NASA Ames, as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission was getting started in 2008. It has been exciting to have the opportunity to lead the science effort on LADEE, a mission aimed at answering questions that go back to the Apollo era -- right back where I first became hooked on space. "The circle is now complete."

Who inspired you?

My brother Lance: He was always interested in science and astronomy. Lance ended up in geology, which at the time I regarded as a little bit "pedestrian," considering there were things like black holes and quasars and all that stuff out there in the cosmos, plus the wonder of the planets -- like Jupiter and the icy moons of our solar system. But now -- today -- I can't get enough of geology; it fascinates me.

My graduate advisor, Chris Russell, was an inspiration too. Chris was also generous with opportunities to be involved in space instruments, such as magnetometers.

Bill Feldman at Los Alamos is a physicist with an amazing depth of knowledge, but at the same time has old-school courtesy, honor and integrity, as well as being incredibly generous. He loved getting younger scientists involved in the stuff that he was interested in. He's still going strong today, and continuing his Mars research. I'm deeply indebted to Bill -- I am still learning from him.

What is a Project Scientist?

A project scientist's job is basically to look out for the science interests of a mission, and to make sure that its objectives are met. Sometimes engineering needs, or subsystem requirements, can throw a wrench into the science works and vice versa. A project scientist works out how to make everyone, if not exactly happy, at least agreeable to a solution.

In a way, a project scientist has to straddle the engineering/science fence: knowing when engineering is being too literal in its interpretations of the mission requirements (science is infamously squishy, when it comes to requirements) and adjudicating science team requests that may just not be feasible within the scope and design of the mission. A project scientist has to "get" both what the science team is really after, and the capabilities and limits that engineering places on the mission.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I have lots of favorites! Watching a launch, getting telemetry that says the spacecraft is safely in orbit, seeing the first products of data acquired by your instrument ... etc. I plan to have a favorite moment when LADEE achieves lunar orbit! That will definitely be a cool event.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

If you want to do space instrumentation, take courses in engineering as well as science. If you want to understand how the planets were formed and the processes that go on there, take courses in geology and planetary science. I didn't do those things, which is why I strongly suggest them!

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy the California coast. There's nothing like hiking the hills above the sea, or just being still and watching the waves. Oh, and sushi! Yum!

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Well, first I'd ask them to close their eyes and picture what they'd really enjoy doing in 10 years. What did they see, and do they see themselves doing it as a career? I would also ask if they are interested in building things, or are interested in the more theoretical aspects of science. I would suggest that where they feel drawn, in that spectrum of possibilities, is where they ought to go. And that, in turn, helps to figure out which schools to go to, what classes to take and so on. Just common sense, I guess.