David SealJun 06, 2009

Canto IV: A Cog in the Wheel, a New Star in the Sky

Dante and Virgil emerge from their hellish journey and gaze once more, exhausted, at the starry heavens. (Each of the three canticas of the Divine Comedy end with Dante gazing up at the stars.) Throughout his fourtheenth-century Commedia, Dante often touched on scientific themes - a spherical Earth, gravity, time zones, the experimental method, clockwork, etc. Galileo was known to have lectured on the Inferno, and it has been suggested that the poem may have influenced some of Galileo's ideas on mechanics.

I have spoken of several privileges my career has offered me this week, and must end with the opportunity to have known Kevin Beurle. Not many people knew Kevin, or the specifics of his work on Cassini - not even within the project. And he was perfectly comfortable with that. Like many, he was perfectly happy to labor in obscurity, and derived personal satisfaction from doing good technical work and seeing it bear fruit. And, like Steve Ostro, he took great pleasure in the collegial and personal relationships he did have, and a healthy variety of outside and highly adventurous activities, including advanced underwater diving and scuba instruction and mountaineering. He died very suddenly one week ago today in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey in a freak ballooning accident, and the Cassini project has been in mourning all week.

Kevin Beurle
Kevin Beurle Kevin Beurle (proudly sporting a NASA t-shirt!) and his daughter Angharad above the Grand Canyon.

I believe most people - at least, the people that I tend to identify with - go through stages of personal motivation in their own lives / careers. In high school, I was taught about Lawrence Kohlberg's six stages of moral development and they do seem applicable here. Early in the stages are the concepts of punishment/reward, i.e. pure self-interest, which I would equate to "if I do well, I will get a good raise, and recognition for it". The middle stages include social norms and law and order, i.e. work ethics, respect and gratitude; "I should work hard at my job because it is my duty." The last stages involve social contracts ("the greatest good for the greatest number") and more universal ethical thought that is less rigidly defined but specific to each situation. To me, this sounds like "I need to do what is best for the mission, regardless of what people may think or see as my own territory."

I won't claim to live in any advanced stage here, nor look down upon those who might be operating personally in any other. But there is something special about working in the space program that - I think - moves one around in Kohlberg's stages more so than other careers. Because you have daily contact with ideas that are very big and/or very spiritual, it does something unusual to you as far as how you approach your job and derive satisfaction from it. Many feel like they are blessed not to be merely maintaining the human race, but pushing it ahead a little. As far as my own thinking goes, I'm with Kevin - I derive them most satisfaction from solving real problems and seeing them bear fruit. I'm not really that interested in how much I get paid (punishment/reward, perhaps) or climbing that professional ladder as high as I can go and gaining respect (social norms). I don't think Kevin was either.

I remember attending JPL's Project Element Manager (PEM) class recently. Near the end of the class, they invite a JPL project manager to come talk about how PEMs work in real project environments and answer questions. There was a lot of talk about PEM being a stepping stone to project manager. I remember baffling our guest project head by asking him if he thought there was anything wrong with wanting to remain a PEM, since it gives me the maximum technical control over one area of the project (i.e. offers the most opportunity for creative technical thinking) without having to spend too much time managing people. I'll never forget his expression, pause, reply "I guess that seems OK to me."

I guess my main point here, to those of you who aren't in the space business, and are reading these blogs, is that the vast majority of those that are in the biz do labor very hard in obscurity with their main reward as the same feelings you have when you read about space, emerging on rare occasions from their dusty cubicles "to see once more the stars." So if you feel like you labor in obscurity, many levels of hell from something so inspiring as the space program, well perhaps you are not so different from us. And so those trench warriors, like Kevin, should be celebrated. As Edmond Rostand's Cyrano said, "I dream of flying to the moon but give no thought to fame or fortune." I think Kevin would have agreed. Carl Sagan, even after he was very famous, certainly did. He always made a point to recognize those who made possible the great discoveries he celebrated publicly.

Of course, you should be celebrated too. Your tax dollars, limitless enthusiasm, letters to congress, and support of organizations such as the Planetary Society make it all possible.

In closing, here are some comments on Kevin from some of those that knew him best. There is a new star in the heavens.

From Carl Murray, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy, Queen Mary College, and member of the Cassini Imaging team:
[Kevin] really would go out of his way to help people and he loved a good challenge. Having worked with me on Cassini since 1991 he probably came to think of all the scientists and engineers as his second family. All the Cassini ISS SATELLORB observations were designed by Kevin and he took great pride in working out the maximum number of small moons he could image in a given time slot. He also designed even more complicated sequences. For example, he recently spent ages working out how to complete a radial scan of the rings near the time of upcoming equinox when there were an incredible number of constraints imposed by other instruments and the very restricted geometry. Along with everyone else involved in the project, Kevin felt incredibly privileged to be part of this amazing mission and he always worked to the highest standards. Kevin was a key member of the Queen Mary group and as well as designing image sequences he fully participated in our research on small satellites and their interaction with the rings. When the Cassini images revealed yet another secret about the Saturn system, Kevin's infectious smile would light up the room. His untimely death is an absolute tragedy.

From Nick Cooper, post-doctoral researcher, Queen Mary:
Kevin was a cherished friend and colleague always ready and willing to offer advice and support. He loved solving complex technical problems - the more challenging the problem the better. I remember he liked to joke about how his earliest experiences of computer programming involved using a soldering iron. I will miss his kindness and generosity, his dry wit and his infectious enthusiasm.

From Angharad Beurle-Williams, his daughter:
You can't really describe him. He was amazing. I know everyone says that about their parents, but he truly was a unique person. He was incredibly intelligent and so enthusiastic and nice. He had a passion for so many things. He could do anything he turned his hand to - anything. He just seemed to know something about everything.

P.S. Thanks, Emily, for another chance to do this. But please don't have any more kids - it's too much work!

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