Rock Star Fior years, planetary geologist Jim Garvin has loved and studied Mars from afar. His work has made him the most sought-after space scientist since Sagan.


GREENBELT -- When Jim Garvin was a senior at Brown University in 1978, the Viking 2 lander was still snapping pictures of the rock-stubbled Martian surface. Planetary scientists were electrified, and anxious to get there to see for themselves. But just reaching Mars with life-support equipment would be hard. ,, Getting back, impossible.

So, some suggested, why not assemble a band of kamikaze geologists and send them there on a one-way ticket? Garvin, a 20-year-old who had taken one of the first courses ever offered in Martian geology, seized on the idea. He wrote to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and begged to be sent on this voyage of no return.

"I'm sure the folks at NASA that got my letter thought, 'Uh, OK, this is one for the looney bin,' " he says. "They sent me a polite letter saying thank you for your letter."

He never got to Mars, of course. But this accidental Earthling, now a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has spent the past 20 years studying the red planet and its near-neighbors in the inner solar system. And James B. Garvin has emerged as an authority on global-scale catastrophes, both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial: specifically, the meteorite impacts and volcanic eruptions that gouge huge holes in a planet's surface.

To study these planet-shaking events, he has pioneered the use of devices called laser altimeters, which use volleys of laser beams to map the topography of a piece of terrain from the sky.

This week, at the American Geophysical Society meeting in San Francisco, Garvin and his team will present some of the first discoveries of the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, or MOLA, which is currently in a long, looping orbit around Mars aboard a spacecraft called the Mars Global Surveyor.

In the past decade, his energy and evangelical zeal have made him one of the solar system's best-known rockhounds.

"With Carl Sagan gone, Jim Garvin is as good a speaker as we have in astronomy," says Dr. Stephen P. Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society and a Goddard senior scientist. "He's a terrific scientist as well, with enormous enthusiasm."

Now nearly 20 years older and presumably wiser, Garvin swivels in a chair in his office and considers the question: What if, back in 1978, NASA had said yes?

"From the perspective of a 40-year-old with a family and kids, it looks rather immature and stupid," he says, matter-of-factly. But at the time, he adds, "I would have done it, had they challenged me."

Since writing that letter, Garvin's career has taken him from the Zhamanshin crater in Kazakhstan to the Azores off Portugal, from the Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland to Mars Hill in Death Valley, all in search of unearthly landscapes and the forces that ,, shape them.

But his thoughts are never far from the red planet.

"Mars ... always operates at the extremes, which is why it has always tantalized human beings, I think, personally," he says. "What you have on Mars is the biggest mountains, volcanic, that we can imagine! They're 18 miles high. That's two times higher than the biggest mountains on Earth! They have canyons that are five to eight miles deep. Pretty big. Our Grand Canyon, for scale, is picayune," a mile deep.

Measuring up

The ultimate goal of Garvin's research is to understand how not just Mars, but Earth and the other innermost planets formed -- knowledge that could help us understand under what conditions life appears.

Using MOLA, Garvin and his team have recently surveyed the shape of more than 160 craters -- information that can tell them a lot about the underlying crustal material.

They've plumbed Mars' Valles Marineris, a 3,000-mile-long system of gorges that, they've discovered, are up to 8 miles deep.

They've made the first direct measurements of Olympus Mons, and discovered that it is about 17 miles high -- dwarfing Mauna Kea, which rises 5.6 miles from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

Most tantalizingly, he and his team have precisely measured the height of Mars' northern polar ice cap.

Some scientists have speculated that the escarpment consists of a thin veneer of ice, perhaps a few inches thick, over a jumble of frozen carbon dioxide and rock. Garvin's laser shows that the escarpment soars 2,300 feet from the planet's rocky surface. More important, its shape seems consistent with that of a block of solid ice.

If so, then the Martian pole contains a vast amount of water, perhaps the frozen remnants of ancient seas. And that, of course, suggests conditions on the Martian surface that once may have been friendly to the evolution of life.

Is Garvin excited?

"I'm absolutely, thoroughly delighted with what has happened -- we're just all ecstatic -- there's not any other word for it," says Garvin, who rocks restlessly in his chair, like a school kid eager for recess.

To him, firing laser beams at planets, figuring out how volcanoes erupt and measuring giant holes is recess.

Garvin, born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., calls himself "an IBM brat," because his father was an executive with the computer giant. When he was growing up, the family relocated frequently -- the old joke was that IBM stood for "I've Been Moved" -- to exotic locales: Beirut, Greece, Australia. The Garvins also vacationed in places like Iran, upper Egypt and Fiji. Everywhere they went, Jim was fascinated by the terrain -- especially desolate stretches of desert.

"I can't explain it," he said. "I get chills up my spine when I see certain landscapes. Not that I'm Mr. Outdoors, but it really moves me. Tremendously."

Maybe he gets it from his grandmother.

"Nanny" shared his fascination with geography and geology, and took him rock hunting when he was a child. When an underwater volcano erupted off Iceland in 1963, creating the new island of Surtsey, Nanny cut out newspaper clippings and pored over maps with her grandson.

"It made a great impression on me," he said.

By the late 1960s, the Garvins had moved to Connecticut, where Garvin was a high school math whiz and a slight, 5-foot-7 1/2 hockey goalie.

"I was a nerd who played hockey, to be blunt," says Garvin. He still keeps a photograph over his desk of the legendary hockey star Bobby Orr, flying across the ice as the Boston Bruins won the 1971 Stanley Cup.

Path to success

At Brown University, Garvin became the protege of Thomas A. "Tim" Mutch, team leader for the Viking lander's camera and co-author of "The Martian Landscape," a book filled with Viking's photos.

"Some of the best university research in planetary exploration was evolving at Brown, thanks to a couple of individuals," Garvin said. "Tim Mutch was one of them."

Garvin earned his master's in geology at Stanford University, then returned to Brown in 1979, to earn his Ph.D. in geology under Mutch. Mutch was killed in the summer of 1980 while climbing the Himalayas.

In 1985, fresh out of graduate school, Garvin won a rare and coveted NASA staff job at Goddard. "I was the luckiest guy alive," he says.

Today he lives in Columbia with his wife, Cindy, 40, who worked at Goddard as a manager for 18 years. They have two children, son Zachary, 2 1/2 , and daughter Danica, born this year.

From his first month at NASA, he says, he wanted to map the topography of Mars.

Sure, Viking orbiters and landers had made exquisitely detailed pictures of the planet two decades ago, and scientists can use those images to calculate the approximate height of mountains and other features. But Garvin says these estimates lack the precision needed to understand what the planet looks like from "the human scale."

Soon after joining NASA, Garvin pushed Goddard to build a terrain-mapping device known as a radar altimeter, which uses radio waves to probe the ground, for the agency's next Mars mission. When that proved too expensive, he and a team of scientists decided to try using new laser technology to build a cheaper, more effective tool.

Radar altimeters fire a barrage of radio waves at the ground, then calculate the distance to the ground by measuring the time it takes for the signals to return. Laser altimeters do the same thing, but they use finely tuned pulses of light.

Garvin and his crew fired their first fusillade of laser beams at the Earth from an airplane in the fall of 1986, as they buzzed the Grand Canyon.

"A lot of naysayers said you'll never get laser beams to bounce off the walls of canyon," Garvin says. But the gizmo worked flawlessly.

After seven years of frantic work and nail-biting delays, the first planetary laser altimeter flew on the $1 billion Mars Observer in 1992. But in September 1993, just as the sophisticated spacecraft entered Martian orbit, it vanished; engineers suspect blew up.

When NASA proposed a series of smaller, cheaper and faster Mars missions to replace the Observer, Garvin's laser altimeter won a berth on the next scheduled Mars orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor.

In recent decades, Mars spacecraft have, for some reason, been glitch-prone. Surveyor isn't any different.

Surveyor reached Mars Sept. 11 of this year, and was supposed to spend several months "aerobraking," using the drag of the planet's atmosphere to slowly capture the spacecraft in a planet-hugging orbit. This scheme was supposed to save fuel and launch costs.

When Surveyor skimmed the Martian atmosphere, one of its wing-like solar panels started flapping wildly. The yoke had cracked, apparently. Rapid aerobraking might cause the panel to snap off, mission engineers feared.

"There was initial panic at the project," Garvin said. "It was, 'Oh my god. What do we do? ... We don't want to lose our first orbiter in 21 years around Mars.' "

Engineers finally decided to brake Surveyor far more slowly than planned. Now it's supposed to reach its operating orbit in March 1999 instead of March 1998.

While they were deciding what to do, flight engineers aimed Surveyor at Mars and let the scientists turn on their instruments for the 20 minutes of each orbit when it passed near the planet.

Garvin's team was able to make 200,000 measurements, and he exults that the results are "staggering."

Cataclysmic forces

While Garvin is given to delivering off-the-cuff lectures about rocks he finds laying around his cluttered office or in an Icelandic flood plain, he mostly loves things that go bang.

In the early 19th century, when modern geology began, Charles Lyell and others argued that the world was very old and had evolved over millions of years. They were trying to overturn the entrenched, biblical view that the heavens and the Earth were created in six days.

Gradualism eventually triumphed, at least in university lecture halls. But in this century, scientists began to recognize that planets weren't just shaped by gradual forces, but have also been altered by cataclysmic forces: volcanic eruptions, gigantic meteorites, huge floods.

"There's a scientific paradigm that you probably know, which is that things kind of inexorably creep along," Garvin says. "And there's a radical other thinking that says there's the ebb and flow of Mother Nature and geology. And then, there's: bang!" He smacks his hands together. "Something happens! And that something that happens -- aperiodically, not always anticipated -- that almost catastrophic thing, is where the excitement is."

One place that fascinates Garvin is Iceland, a volcanic archipelago in the North Atlantic where the landscape is sometimes sculpted in hours or days, by volcanic eruptions and by mammoth floods triggered when lava turns glaciers to steam and water.

Just last spring, Garvin and a team of engineers flew a laser-equipped P3 Orion over Iceland's Vatnajokull glacier. An erupting sub-glacial volcano had melted a huge hole in the ice and triggered an epic flood in 1996.

Now, it could be that the vast, flat gravel plains that often skirt glaciers, called "sandours," are created by the trickle of streams off the ice fields. Garvin suspects they are mostly formed by catastrophic outburst floods, like the 1996 event.

What Garvin has found, using his airborne laser as a precision surveying instrument, is that the 1996 flood added far more material than it removed from the Vatnajokull's sandy plain.

"Sandours are probably not just aided and abetted" by glacial floods, he said, they're "probably driven by once-every-50-to-100-year floods." In other words, they are essentially built by rare, catastrophic events.

For the past several years, Garvin has also been studying the 14,400-foot Mount Rainier near Seattle, which he succinctly describes as "a big, dangerous volcano covered with ice." An eruption, or even a sudden heating of Rainier, could trigger a flood that would dwarf the one in Iceland, at least in destructive power.

That's because Rainier is much steeper than the volcanoes under Iceland's ice cap, and a flood off its slopes would carry a lot more punch.

"We basically have now put 170,000 measurements ... on the summit of this mountain," he says. "If you wanted to go and do the survey work it would take a lifetime."

Garvin's work has earned him international recognition. During the heyday of their space program, Soviets scientists were among the world's best when it came to planetary geology. But when they wanted to interpret data from their Venus probes, they turned to Garvin.

Colleagues say Garvin is a Niagara of ideas.

"He's really like a spark plug to a lot of us," said Dr. James B. Abshire, head of Goddard's laser remote sensing branch.

And what he's thinking about most these days is Mars.

He's so wrapped up in the Surveyor work, he says, that as he heads off to work in the morning his son will sometimes look up and ask: "Daddy, are you going to Mars today?"

"No, not today, Zach," Garvin replies.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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