Mark Allen ’71 Guides NASA to Mars Research
By Robert E. Calem ’89J
It takes nine months for a spaceship from Earth to reach Mars, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the two planets are really so far apart. What actually separates one from the other, says Mark Allen ’71, is a measly 25 miles; that’s the distance above Earth where the chemical and physical composition of this planet’s atmosphere most closely resembles that of Mars.
Allen, principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, is the NASA chief scientist behind the planned 2016 launch of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a spacecraft whose mission is to study the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere and to try to find evidence of primitive life, or of magma and geothermal processes, in the planet’s subsurface.
It is a tremendously ambitious pursuit –– the first truly joint planetary mission between NASA and the European Space Agency –– and it would, if successful, herald the first detection of life or a habitable region outside of the Earth. All evidence to date has marked Mars as a dead planet, both on its surface and in its interior.
Outcomes aside, though, for Allen the ExoMars mission represents something more: the culmination of a long and impressive career first formulated amidst the turbulence of Columbia in the 1960s.
“The story starts with my entering Columbia knowing I wanted to be a research chemist,” yet not having much more than a vague notion of a career, Allen says. Guided by people such as physical chemistry professor George Flynn ’64 GS, ’66 GSAS, “the strong Columbia chemistry department allowed me to see what world-class research was like” and, with graduation looming, a scientific breakthrough in space finally spawned one of his own.
“In my senior year, I learned about the discovery of molec-ules in interstellar space (the region between the stars), an environment where conventional wisdom at the time would suggest that molecules shouldn’t exist,” he says. “I chose this burgeoning field of astrochemisry as my future research interest.”
Columbia led to a Ph.D. in chemistry from Caltech in 1976, where Allen completed one of the earliest research papers to present “model simulations” of the molecular clouds in interstellar space, which was published in 1977.
Not staying away from Columbia for long, he returned to New York for a two-year fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a Columbia collaborator, where he met Yuk Yung, a visiting researcher from Harvard, and Gordon Chin ’70, ’78 GSAS. Both would later play key roles in shaping Allen’s career.
In 1978, Yung drew Allen to return to Caltech as a postdoctoral fellow in planetary sciences, preparing him for a move to JPL in 1981. In the mid-1990s, Chin resurfaced with a new opportunity: to jointly develop a mission proposal to NASA for orbiting Venus and studying the chemical composition of that planet’s middle atmosphere, which bears much resemblance to Earth’s middle atmosphere.
Although NASA subsequently did not undertake the Venus mission, Allen says, the experience was instrumental in shaping his work. Building on that mission proposal, 10 years ago he was the first to create the concept of a Mars trace gas mission and led a team (including Chin) to write a new mission proposal to NASA. Through a variety of twists and turns, this proposal gave rise to the ExoMars orbiter project last year.
In hindsight, Allen credits the College for the foundation that made it all possible. The Core Curriculum “honed my skills in articulation of points of view orally and in writing,” he says, adding, “I was told by a very senior JPL program manager that I prepared the clearest mission proposals he had ever read.” Four years on the Ferris Booth Hall Board of Managers, of which he was president in his senior year, taught him leadership skills that he still uses today, he says.
Great study habits also contributed to Allen’s successes, especially in the late 1960s, when Columbia was engulfed in the societal and political turmoil of the times.
“We were at Columbia during all the turbulence, [but] he was a serious science student and he didn’t let any of that distract him,” recalls his friend and dormmate in what was then known as Livingston Hall, Richard Fuhrman ’71, a former member of the Columbia College Alumni Association Board of Directors. “He took the industrial-strength courses, and that’s frankly what got him to what he’s doing today. But, despite the pocket protector, he was a regular guy who had a sense of humor. He was very sweet, very thoughtful.” The two get together once a year when Allen returns to Long Island, where he grew up and Fuhrman now lives, to visit family and friends.
Allen gives the most credit to his parents for setting him in the right direction. “I was admitted to MIT, but my parents really didn’t want me to go because they thought it too specialized,” he remembers. “I think they were remarkably on the ball.”
When it launches in 2016, the ExoMars orbiter will travel for nine months to reach the outer limits of Mars’ atmosphere. “Aerobraking,” reducing its orbit radius to where observations can commence, will add another seven months. Those observations, once begun, will stretch the mission out another two “Earth years,” Allen says. “That takes me to [age] 71” and may make this the last project he undertakes –– the zenith of a journey that began in Morningside Heights and extended to the heights of outer space.
Robert E. Calem ’89J is a freelance journalist based in Hoboken, N.J., who has covered a wide range of technology and business subjects for 25 years.