Being the MAVEN Principal Investigator

MAVEN PI, Bruce Jakosky
University of Colorado Planetary Scientist Bruce Jakosky is the Principal Investigator (PI) for the MAVEN mission.

I work at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. LASP does what we call “full cycle” science, meaning that we identify important science questions, build and fly instruments to address them, analyze the data and integrate it with theoretical and laboratory analyses to answer the questions, and produce a next generation of questions. It’s really exciting stuff, but the day-to-day work on MAVEN sometimes can take on the semblance of any office job. There’s a lot of writing documents, processing paperwork, and endless phone calls and telecons. And travel, which can get pretty tedious when it’s so non-stop.

But occasionally I’m reminded of how cool the work really is. I’ll take visiting friends and relatives on a tour of our facilities, which include a mission operations center, engineering laboratories, and a high-bay clean room where instruments are assembled. We see spacecraft components, a sounding rocket, and a spacecraft test model on display. I get excited all over again when I see their eyes light up.

Somebody on the team asked me recently if I get “rock star” status among the scientists. I attended a recent meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Activity Group (MEPAG). MEPAG is a group that brings Mars scientists and engineers together to provide their expertise in planning the future of the Mars exploration program. I don’t get treated any differently from anybody else at these meetings, of course, and people don’t hang on my every word. But MAVEN does get a lot of attention. The head of the Mars Exploration Program and of the Mars Program Office report on its status, and people are interested in how we’re doing and whether we’re on track. It’s a delight to see people so interested, especially after years of competition in which we had to keep what we were doing secret!

It’s hard to describe the role of the PI. It’s my responsibility to make sure that the mission is a success, that it does the best possible science, and that it comes in on schedule and on budget. But those words don’t do the role justice. MAVEN is truly a team effort that involves many hundreds of people in many different organizations, and it could not succeed without the effort and dedication of everybody involved. A big part of my role as PI is to look across all aspects of the mission and make sure they mesh well together. That lets me ask potentially stupid questions about anything that I don’t understand, and to push for more details especially when something doesn’t sound quite right.

All of this doesn’t tell you the most important thing about being a mission PI, it’s fun! It’s a delight to get insight across the entire project, and to work with such an outstanding team toward building a spacecraft that we’re going to send to Mars! As MAVEN PI, I take great pride in the MAVEN team, what we’re accomplishing, and the fact that we’re working together as a team. It’s both the most fun and most satisfying job that I’ve ever had!