Tony Taylor is the only member of an elite club of spacecraft navigators. In 2008, he became the first human to navigate human craft around every planet in the solar system.
“Mercury is the tie-breaker,” he laughs. “There’s one guy who’s been everywhere except Mercury, but right now, it’s just me.”
“Physics is universal.”
Taylor started out flying F4C Phantoms, notching up 150 combat missions, including 100 over Vietnam. After leaving US Air Force, he started looking into astronaut training. He already had a general BSc from the Air Force Academy, so he applied to do his Master’s in astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
As it happened, he found himself in the physics building, where one of the professors convinced him to switch. “Physics is universal,” says Taylor. “That’s something you can use whatever you do. Making that change affected my whole life.”
After graduating, Taylor went to the Naval Weapons Center where he worked on radar tracking systems and electronic warfare – much of which is still classified. However, after four years he realized this wasn’t what he wanted. “The place is on the edge of Mojave desert,” he explains. “It was a grim place to live. So I applied to JPL instead.”
That was the beginning of over 30 years working in the space industry. He started off working for two years as a tracking data engineer on the Deep Space Network, upgrading antennas to S-band and X-band, dealing with Doppler ranging. “It was fun,” he grins. “I was using many of the skills I learned working at Naval Weapons on radar tracking.”
After 2 years at DSN, Taylor shifted to the Voyager project on navigation, and liked it so much that in 1980, he decided to be a full-time navigator. To put it in perspective, for those who know their space history, Voyager 2 had just passed Jupiter and Voyager 1 was just arriving at Saturn. Taylor’s first task was to calculate orbit determination and trajectory design for the Saturn encounters that took place in November 1980 and August 1981. It was a challenge unlike anything he’d faced before. As he points out, with justifiable pride, “At that time there were no college courses for flying spacecraft, we had to figure everything out for ourselves.”
Over the following years, Taylor rose to a leadership role in the navigation team, and was notched up his next two planets: Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989, both with Voyager 2. He checked off Earth and Jupiter with Galileo, also taking in several of the satellites and asteroids en route, before crash-landing on Jupiter in 2003. He navigated two fly-bys of Venus with Cassini on its way to Saturn.
That Time Tony Crashed Into Mars
“Mars has eaten more spacecraft than any other planet,” he says, with a grimace.
“The Martian atmosphere offers no aero braking, so you have to put a lot of design and development into parachutes and engine braking. That leaves a lot of things to go wrong, especially with landers.
“I still didn’t have Mars by 2000, so I was excited when they asked me to join the Navigation Advisory Group for the Mars Polar Lander. Six months earlier, they’d crashed Mars Climate Observer into Mars, and everyone was worried they would do it again. There was absolutely no room for error getting into the atmosphere.”
If you know your Martian history, you know how this story ends.
“The navigation team absolutely nailed it. The problem was, apparently, an accelerometer had been installed upside down. The lander’s engine cut off and the spacecraft smeared itself over the Martian pole.
“I was there in the last hour of the spacecraft’s life. I remember the room filling up with VIPs coming in to watch. As it entered the atmosphere, there was a blackout. The time to receive the signal came and it just got quieter and quieter. All you can do is sit and wait, and hope you didn’t make a mistake.”
Still, Taylor did his job. He flew to Mars.
That just left Mercury, which he crossed off with Messenger’s 2008 flyby. As far as we know, the soonest another engineer can join the Seen It All Club would be during BepiColombo’s first flyby in 2019.
Since then, Taylor has retired, and now writes thrillers and hard sci-fi, drawing on his own experiences in combat and space. His latest book, The Darkest Side of Saturn: Odyssey of a Reluctant Prophet of Doom, is about the discovery of a large asteroid that might hit us in sixteen years.
So You Want to See It All
Taylor’s love and passion is evident whenever he talks about his work. “This is one of the most exciting times in human history, and there’s still a lot ahead of us to see. Desire is the most important thing. It’s not a career step, you have to really want to do this, and see it as fun. In combat flying there’s a saying that flying is 99% boredom and 1% stark terror, navigating a spacecraft is the same. You need to be a perfectionist under pressure, and work through tedious tasks without making mistakes. Most people don’t like the tedium. In all honesty, you need to be a bit of a nerd. You have to love the fact that you are in control of a unique program. And you have to have excellent background in math, physics and aerospace engineering.”
Space navigation clearly isn’t for the faint of heart. “When I worked on military radar at NWC we took the attitude that if design was short by a few db, it didn’t matter. It just wasn’t that critical. Once I got to the Deep Space Network, if you were upgrading an antenna, you had to get to fractions of a db. If you were .2db short, that was a big deal. Space navigation is incredibly demanding in terms of implementation and design. The space industry is totally unforgiving, there is absolutely no tolerance at all for error. That’s the culture at JPL. I thought it would be leisurely, since you have so much time to work on everything, but the management and control is intense and strict. You don’t allow mistakes to propagate. You just don’t.”
Taylor is also candid about the toll it takes on your personal life. “Most of the people who work on space missions are space cadets at heart. You get a lot of people working overtime even when they don’t get paid for it, because they love what they do and they’re having so much fun. It’s hard on family life, though. Work is our mistress.”
The rewards, however, are unlike any other job. Taylor recalls his favorite moments. “At Neptune we had a real challenge when we flew by the planet and its gravity flung Voyager II around to intercept Triton’s shadow. We had a pretty small window to get the dual occultation we wanted. The elation when we learned at 3am that it had worked was incredible. I’ll also never forget watching the first pictures come back from the other side of Saturn for Voyager 1 in 1981. A day or two after it started departing north of the ecliptic plane, they turned the camera back, and we saw the first images of the dark side of Saturn. We got to see the shadows cutting across the rings, which made it look 3 dimensional. It was the first time any human had ever seen that.”
The moments of exhilaration are matched by hours or days of pure terror. “There’s always a time where you’ve been working really late, trying to deliver a trajectory so that the people who design the command load can get the spacecraft in position, you’re struggling to get it together, and you’re tired and not thinking, and you’re worried you’re making a mistake. You have to be sure everything is perfect. The stakes are really high, because there may never be another chance in our lifetimes. That’s how it was with Voyager and Uranus and Neptune. The tension is unbelievable.”
And, perhaps you’ve been wondering, what about Pluto? Even though Pluto isn’t officially a planet, Taylor still hopes to get there, just in case it’s ever promoted back again, so he can keep his perfect record. Kinetx is taking New Horizons to Pluto, arriving in July 2015. Taylor’s planning to come out of retirement and get back on the team. “I won’t be running it this time, but it would be nice to check that one off,” he says.
Featured Image Credit: NASA