I was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama a fairly small town located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I am the oldest of five children. I have two brothers and two sisters. All five of us obtained our degrees from the University of Alabama, which is located in Tuscaloosa. The name Tuscaloosa was derived from the Creek and Choctaw Indian words for an Indian Chief whose name means Black Warrior. In 1540 Chief Tuscaloosa encountered the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. De Soto would later discover the Mississippi River. I have always been interested in science and the great explorers of history. Exploration is the life blood of a civilization. It provides new frontiers and challenges that stimulate both its people and technology. Exploration is crucial for a civilization’s survival. Civilizations that cease to explore expire. The lessons of history are replete with examples of this very fact and America needs to maintain its space superpower status or we will falter and slip into the backwaters of history. If I had been alive 500 years ago I would have been jumping onboard the ships of Columbus, Magellean or da Gama as they set off to explore the unknown world. I believe that if the great explorers of history were alive today they would be exploring space, which is literally full of new worlds to explore. This common link through the mists of history is one aspect of my job that provides me with a thrilling sense of purpose and perspective of our place in the Universe. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to commit my life to the great adventure of exploring space. I have been interested and dreamed about exploring space ever since I was seven years old. I have never really wanted to do anything else with my life. I remember my father taking me out to watch meteor showers as a young boy. As I lay on the hood of his truck gazing up into the dark night watching meteors glowingly zip by overhead it dawned on me that space was a real place to go and explore. It wasn’t some fantasy land that existed only in your dreams or storybooks but it was in fact somewhere we could go one day to explore all its glorious mysteries and I wanted to be part of it. Growing up I naturally built and launched countless model rockets, wrote letters to astronauts, looked through my telescope, and read as much as I could about space exploration. Two events that had a profound influence on my life were the Apollo Lunar landings and the later Viking robotic landing on Mars. It was a very thrilling time to be alive because I was able to go look up at the Moon in our backyard and know that Americans were up there walking and working. I wanted to be part of the next big step in exploration and that would be landing astronauts on Mars. From this point onward Mars has always been the focus of my career. We presently have no firm plans to land astronauts on Mars or even send crews back to the Moon. However, I still believe that it will happen and I hope to play a role in making this dream come true. I was also very fortunate to have great parents that supported and instilled in me the drive to go out and fulfill my dreams. They took me to the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center located in Huntsville, Alabama numerous times. I obviously never tired of these trips but my brothers and sisters sort of got sick of it after awhile. NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center is where the most powerful rocket in the world was designed, built and tested. This rocket would take America to the Moon; it was called the Saturn V. These trips cemented my dreams because they allowed me to touch and see real Moon rocks, rockets, spacecraft, and space suits. NASA summed up all the good things America meant to me: patriotism, teamwork, and a ‘can do spirit’ to achieve seemingly impossible dreams.
In school most of my teachers were good teachers but a couple told me that I was not smart enough to achieve my dream of exploring space. Some fellow students also called me names like Moon Man and stuff like that but I was not going to let these things stop me from fulfilling my life long dream.
I received my BS degree in Geology from the University of Alabama. The reason I wanted to study geology was because I ultimately wanted to learn about the geology of other planets, especially Mars. I was the only person in the Geology Department who was interested in Astrogeology, most were interested in Petroleum Geology and working for Oil Companies. I then went to Northeast Louisiana University for my MS degree and did detailed geologic mapping of a region that contained evidence of enormous floods and possibly lakes on Mars. I was also accepted for an Astrogeology Internship position at the United States Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona during this time. This job enabled me to meet and work with some of the leading Astrogeologists in the world. It was a very rewarding experience. I obtained my Ph.D. at Arizona State University where I specialized in the study of the geomorphology of the channels and landforms on Mars. While working on my Ph.D. I was invited by NASA to go on a 6 month long joint expedition to Antarctica with the Russians. This expedition allowed me to go and explore the last frontier on the surface of the Earth. It was one of the most exciting times of my life and perhaps as close as I will ever get to going to Mars. Going to Antarctica is a lot like going to another planet in terms of logistics, risks, isolation, remoteness, and exploration and discovery. We had to make out our Last Will and Testament before we departed because people still die every year down there. The biggest adventure while down there involved SCUBA diving under the ice covered lakes. The ice cover was 12 to 15 feet thick and it required several days of very hard work for us to make our dive holes by hand. I was studying these and other lakes as analogs to lakes that may have existed on Mars in the past. I still continue to go on science expeditions to Mars-like places around the world like Iceland and Devon Island in the High Arctic. I also worked on Mars Polar Lander which unfortunately crashed on Mars back in December 1999. Exploration and danger go hand in hand. I presently work at the Mars Space Flight Facility located at Arizona State University. I am working on the THEMIS camera onboard Mars Odyssey. I target the cameras, take pictures of Mars and then analyze the images for future landing sites and geologic studies to help us better understand this planet. I was also accepted as a Science Team Member on both Mars Exploration Rovers. I feel that I have one of the best jobs in the world. And it is an honor and privilege going to work every day. Dreams do come true!