Meet the IBEX Team: Eric Christian
Eric Christian was born in New Jersey (or "Joisey", Exit 18W) and had a pretty typical suburban childhood. He says, "I have wanted to work for NASA since I was eight or nine, thanks to the Apollo landings, and basically never wavered from that goal. Yes, I was a nerdy kid! Neil Armstrong inspired me to work for NASA, and my high school physics teacher, Neil Wyman, helped shape me into a physicist. It was a real highlight to meet Neil Armstrong later in life and tell him how he had inspired me. He was very gracious." Eric loved hiking in the extensive wooded areas near his house - though those areas are now all subdivisions - and early on, he demonstrated an aptitude for math and science and enjoyed both. He married his high school sweetheart, Christine. They have been married for 25 of their 31 years together.
Eric continues, "The combination of science and math ability and a skill at working with my hands, plus the enjoyment I get out of building things and solving puzzles, pretty much set me up to be an experimental physicist. Having a great high school physics teacher cemented it. I was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania and worked setting up classroom demonstrations my freshman year. By sophomore year, I was already working with a research group on a deep-underground cosmic ray muon experiment. The Penn education and research experience got me into Caltech for graduate school. Caltech was hard, but a great place to learn. Within 48 hours of arriving in California I was already working with the Space Radiation Laboratory and driving a truckload of equipment to a particle accelerator - thanks to learning to drive a truck for the Physics Dept at Penn. Working on a cosmic ray balloon-borne instrument and the two Voyager spacecraft (my thesis experiment) gave me the skills to get hired as a post-doc at Goddard Space Flight Center. I worked for the University Space Research Association at Goddard for fifteen years on several balloon cosmic ray missions (ALICE, IMAX, ISOMAX, TIGER, and Nightglow) and spacecraft missions (ASTROMAG, POEMS, and ACE). Looking to add some new skills, I took a 2-year temporary position as a Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, that lasted six and a half years. Within the first year, NASA had offered me a civil servant job, which is what convinced me to stay. I arrived just about the time that IBEX was proposed and became Program Scientist for IBEX immediately."
Currently, Eric is the Deputy Mission Scientist for IBEX. What Mission Scientists do is keep the bureaucratic aspects of the mission running smoothly, so that the Principal Investigator and other scientists can do good science. "Because IBEX is such an exciting mission, I am trying to help on the science, too," he explains. "I am also Deputy Project Scientist for the ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) and STEREO missions."
A typical day for Eric can be fairly hectic since he is currently working on so many different projects at different stages. "I am working on design and some prototyping for future missions, data analysis for existing missions, writing proposals, papers, et cetera. There are a lot of general things, as well, such as training and support for other NASA programs. I also do a fair amount of education and public outreach. I enjoy talking to the public and students about what I do. How could I not spend time on something that is both important and fun?
"What I enjoy most about what I do from day to day is solving puzzles. It is the reason I went into science. My analogy for the universe is that it is an enormous jigsaw puzzle, and the scientist's job - my job - is to fit in the pieces. Each piece doesn't do much on the scale of the whole puzzle, but it does give you a clue of what the nearby pieces should look like. In science, answering a question usually leads to more questions."
"Unfortunately, there is a small downside to my job - paperwork. NASA is a great place to work, but it is also a government system, and that involves paperwork. I never had any idea growing up that being a scientist involved so much of what came out of English class. I spend far more time reading, writing, and editing than I ever could have possibly imagined. The biggest challenge I think I have faced, and still face, is time management. There is so much to do that prioritization and efficient use of time is extremely important. But there never seems to be enough time for everything I want to do.
"I think it's important to find the sweet spot where your skills and interests mesh. I have always wanted to be paid to have fun, and sometimes I am there. But I have gotten there by being willing to do things just for the skills that I would acquire. Having marketable skills, in whatever field, gives you more options, and more options give you more control over where your career goes, as well as the ability to adjust to changing circumstances."
When Eric is not attending to the IBEX mission and other duties, he loves to spend time with his family. He says, "I have two great kids, Stephen (age 15) and Lyta (age 10). I like hiking and birdwatching - I was even a volunteer naturalist at a wildlife refuge before the kids were born. I like kayaking and canoeing on the reservoir near my house. I like swimming, and occasionally play tennis. I cook and really enjoy good food and drink. Add together travel, spending time with the family, and work, and it's a really busy life."
What does Eric predict for the future of space exploration in ten years? "I, personally, would like to be the Principal Investigator of a future experiment or mission, but first I have to come up with a good idea, and then I have to sell that idea. In terms of space exploration as a whole, they say that the best way to predict weather is by saying that tomorrow will look very much like today. I think that we will have moved down the road, but the space exploration terrain will look very similar to what it is now. I have hope that the nation's interest in science and reason will improve."