By Bob Smith
How old is the universe? Are there other planets like Earth out there? We have asked these questions around campfires and in universities for centuries. Mark Legassie, a systems engineer and physicist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explores the answers through his work on the Spitzer Space Telescope and PlanetQuest programs.
Spitzer, the largest infrared telescope ever launched in space, obtains images by detecting the heat radiated by objects and has already led to many new discoveries about our universe. Scheduled for launch in 2010, PlanetQuest will combine the light from two telescopes and will permit imaging targets and determining positions with an accuracy hundreds of times better than Hubble.
As a science test designer on Spitzer, Mark had the opportunity in 2003 to pay the ultimate tribute to two gay and lesbian organizations: launching them into outer space! Onboard Spitzer is a commemorative plaque with pictures of the project employees, as well as logos of two of the largest non-profit gay and lesbian recreational organizations in the world: California Great Outdoors and New England's Chiltern Mountain Club.
I got to know Mark, chairman of the California Great Outdoors, when he led me and 30 other campers on a trip with Great Outdoors to Zion National Park. He brought along his telescope, a massive 'amateur' instrument whose case fills the bed of his pick-up truck. One of the highlights of the trip was when Mark showed us Jupiter, Saturn, and the M3 Globular Cluster, a startlingly beautiful grouping of 100,000 suns in outer space. Mark explained that this cluster is so dense with stars that habitants on or of its worlds would never see night. After the trip, I thought the readers of Out might also like a glimpse of a gay rocket scientist.
What gives you lift-off?
I could say astronomy and camping, but it's really the social interactions that those two interests have brought to my life. I love having someone else to say 'Wow' with and surrounding myself with friends.
How did you get interested in outer space?
I attribute that to growing up in a rural area. Free from city light pollution, northern Maine has the darkest night skies I've ever seen. My cousin Pat and I would lie on our backs, looking up at the stars. We'd stare in awe, wondering if the universe goes on forever and ever'and what or who is on the other side.
Is there life on other planets?
Definitely. And I think we'll discover it within our lifetime.
How do you think we'll discover it?
First, we'll most likely find non-intelligent life forms'maybe on Mars'using robotic or manned spacecraft. Eventually, with more powerful telescopes, we'll look for telltale signatures of intelligent life on other worlds. A woman colleague of mine at JPL leads a NASA program to determine what these signatures should look like and may include things such as 'alien-made' pollution. In other words, studying the destructive pollution made by humans on Earth could help us find intelligent life forms on other worlds'sort of an oxymoron.
What are your feelings about UFOs and Roswell?
I have to say I'm skeptical about UFOs. A lot of the sightings are probably from people who have had too much to drink or smoke. About Roswell, do I think our government could have lied about a crashed flying saucer? Absolutely.
Do you have any scientific heroes?
Yes. At the risk of sounding nerdy, Gene Roddenberry is near the top. He's not a scientist but through Star Trek he has inspired me and countless others to pursue a career in physics, astronomy, and space exploration. He's really made outer space seem inclusive and fascinating.
Was it difficult coming out in NASA?
Not in the least. The first week I started this job, I immediately met other gay people working here through a social group called Lambda. JPL also has a domestic partnership program, and sexual orientation is included in workplace anti-discrimination policies. It's a terrific place for gay people to work.
Do you think we'll discover gaylians?
I'm sure there's a gay planet out there that someday we'll be vacationing at. Although what would we call it? [Pause] Uranus is already taken.
Would gay people survive in outer space better than straight people?
Well, up until recently, most astronauts were men. So if you went on a two-year trip to Mars, a gay astronaut might have a better time than a straight astronaut. Although he would probably have to listen to endless jokes about being an 'asstronaut.'
Who's better: Lieutenant Uhuru or Princess Leia?
I love them both, but I'd have to go with Lieutenant Uhuru. Even gay men think she's hotter.