Arvidson wins fourth public service award from NASA

Ray Arvidson’s latest accolade marks a long career in planetary exploration.

Raymond Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, has been awarded an Outstanding Public Leadership Medal from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The honor — his fourth service medal from NASA — marks the culmination of a storied career in planetary exploration that goes back to first Viking Mars landers in the 1970s. “The medal is especially meaningful to me because it’s a NASA-wide award,” Arvidson said. “I’m humbled.” 

Raymond Arvidson

The medal is reserved for non-governmental individuals who show “notable leadership accomplishments that have significantly influenced the NASA mission.” Arvidson’s award cited his “outstanding leadership furthering NASAs mission through sustained scientific leadership in Mars exploration, insights into spectroscopy and terramechanics, and mentoring.” The award was officially announced at a July 11 ceremony at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Arvidson received his first Public Service Medal in 1985, chiefly for his leadership as chair of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council’s Committee on Data Management and Computation. He helped modernize the system for storing and archiving data, a major improvement from the paper printouts and microfiche that piled up in NASA warehouses. “It used to be like that scene in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,'” he said.

Since then, Arvidson has been involved in multiple planetary missions, including the Magellan Venus orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), Mars Phoenix Lander, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover), and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. His second and third medals, respectively, were for his leadership on the Magellan and Phoenix missions.

Mars remains an especially compelling destination, Arvidson said, because it was once relatively warm, wet, and presumably well-suited for life. Discovery of current or former life on Mars would say much about the potential for biology and our own place in the universe. “We’re addressing some big questions with these missions,” he said.

Among other contributions, Arvidson helped design and operate Mars rovers to maneuver across the planet’s rocky terrain, and he played a key role in collecting and interpreting spectroscopy data to identify the chemical makeup of the surface and atmosphere of Mars and Venus.

Arvidson said he’s especially gratified to receive recognition for his mentoring, a hallmark of his recent medal. He noted that many former members of his lab now hold prestigious positions at NASA and in academia. “WashU has long and deep connections with NASA and space research, and I’m proud to have been a part of it,” he said.