Last year, as I waited for a flight home to San Francisco from Dulles International Airport, I met Roger Hunter, former Project Manager of the Kepler program at NASA. We quickly became friends and started texting jokes back and forth on the plane about a screaming child sitting next to him. After a quick Google search on Roger and downing my glass of wine in First Class, I thought, "This is wrong. This situation should really be in reverse. This guy’s the MAN!”
During our first dinner he shared in detail with me his incredible work with NASA. One cannot help but be blown away and intimidated listening to Roger talk about his extensive work with Kepler. After all, what's bigger than trying to find sustainable life on other planets? But what's even more impressive is that he's also kind, humble and cares about changing the world.
DG: What were your dreams as a kid?
RH: To go to college and become a scientist or doctor of some sort. I wasn't sure what kind of doctor or scientist. I varied from brain surgeon (HA!) to working at NASA. As a kid I remember watching one of the early Apollo tests as it re-entered the atmosphere after several orbits. I was in my parents' front yard, waiting on the school bus one morning, and the space capsule came screaming across the sky as we were told by the local television station. It was an amazing sight and I thought it would be cool to work at NASA.
DG: How did you arrive at NASA?
RH: I was working for the Boeing Corporation at an office in Colorado Springs. My team of engineers and technicians were supporting the Global Positioning System and managing its maintenance activities for a US Air Force organization. I had been with Boeing for 7 1/2 years after retiring from the Air Force. I received a phone call from a NASA representative in January 2008, asking me if I'd like a position with NASA. I asked what kind of position and it was as the Project Manager for the Kepler Mission. I had to ask, “What's the Kepler Mission?” I knew of Johannes Kepler from my Math and Physics courses in college -- but I didn't know of a NASA Kepler Mission. After the NASA official explained the mission's objective, which was to do a census of planets in our Galaxy, and determine if there are other potentially habitable worlds, I had to say yes! So, I departed Boeing and Colorado Springs for NASA Ames Research Center. For the next 6 years, I worked with a very special team on the Kepler Mission. The results have been astonishing -- there are more planets than stars. Look at the sky at night -- on average, there is at least one planet for each star. And, according to one analysis of the Kepler data, one out of every 5 stars harbors a potential earth-like world!
Last year, I transitioned off of the Kepler Mission to lead an effort to further the progress and development of smaller spacecraft, their technologies, and their abilities to do science. Technology has progressed and continues to progress to allow spacecraft that we call "Cube-Sats" or "Nano-sats" or "small spacecraft" to do the same or more than larger spacecraft of the past. The sky is not the limit ... there is tremendous potential there to be realized. I'm hoping to help establish a virtual institute across NASA and join with academic institutions to exploit this new opportunity.
DG: What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
RH: The most rewarding part of my work has been working with the great scientists and engineers at NASA. They are extremely bright and hard-working folks. I've continued to learn more from them as my admiration for them has also grown. NASA has such a brain trust of great folks -- give them any challenge!
DG: Interstellar vs. Gravity: GO!
RH: It's Interstellar, hands-down. There were so many things wrong with Gravity from the orbital mechanics mess-ups, a "medical doctor" working on a space telescope, an "astronaut" playing around in his orbital maneuvering pack while a colleague is working, Clooney's reckless character, getting from ISS to the Chinese space station that easily--HA! Also, when Clooney tells Bullock, to let him go from the tether, it's just plain silly. All that she had to do was give the tether a little tug and he comes back. It's in ZERO-G for Nature's sake!
-Tony Cruz, Do-Gooder Founder