This was written in 1999 for the program book of the Chicago-area Duckon 8, which invited Steve Collins to be Mad Scientist Guest of Honor.]
The Dolly Grip for GalileoBill Higgins
I first encountered Steve Collins on the Net, answering questions about the Galileo spacecraft then enroute to Jupiter.
Steve works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which builds and operates most NASA interplanetary spacecraft. He has been involved in "Attitude Control" for the Galileo orbiter, for the Mars Global Surveyor circling Mars, and for the Deep Space One asteroid spacecraft launched last year. Attitude Control has nothing to do with Happy Hour-- it's the business of telling a spacecraft which way to point itself, and figuring out whether it did what you told it to do.
Since I'm fascinated by the space business, I liked reading what Steve had to say. I learned that he would be giving talks at the Worldcon in Los Angeles in 1996, and so made a point of looking him up.
When I met Steve, I was surprised to learn of his showbiz background. His dad is a cinematographer, and Steve followed in his footsteps for a while, working cameras for TV episodes, commercials, and films. He's got one degree in Theatre Arts and another in Physics.
Eventually he got work with a leading satellite-operations consultant, and wound up at JPL; Steve described himself as "the dolly grip for Galileo."
I was less surprised to find that he loves to tinker with mechanical and electronic gadgetry. One of Steve's creations was featured in the classic-masquerade display exhibited at Worldcon: his award-winning "NASA Probot" walking robot with flashing lights, audio system, and extensible arms. The coolest feature was a little fisheye lens on the outside, so you could peek in and see what the inside of the Probot costume looked like.
Deep Space One, his most recent mission, is an exciting test of new technology, with novel computers, novel solar cells, and novel instruments aboard. Most novel of all, it's the first interplanetary spacecraft to use ion propulsion, offering far higher performance than ordinary chemical rockets. Check the DS1 website to learn more about it. But these new gadgets come with headaches, too, and sometimes dealing with their problems can be a bit too exciting. "Every day on DS1," Steve told me, "is an episode of E.R."
Steve is passionate about communicating the excitement of working with cutting-edge science and technology. He'll tell you just why SF movies get it so wrong-- and why documentaries don't always do much better.
You'll find him at conventions telling audiences how he and his colleagues deal with an "anomaly" (that's NASA-speak for "uh-oh"), often pulling a spacecraft back from the brink of disaster. Or not-- Steve worked on Mars Observer, which in 1993 became a permanent anomaly just before it arrived at the Red Planet. Or you may find him patiently explaining to grade school students, on JPL's Web pages, what it's like to sit behind a console and try to figure out what's wrong with a broken spacecraft and how to tell it to fix itself. I haven't met his kids, but I'll bet they have a real edge in their science classes...
Steve hasn't left the performing arts behind. Between asteroid encounters, he acts in Shakespearean productions or takes ballet classes.
In the brief visits we've had, I've really enjoyed his company. I'm sure you will, too. I can't wait to introduce Steve Collins to some of our Midwestern Mad Scientists.
[2011: Steve has since worked on attitude-control system teams for even more interplanetary spacecraft-- such as the Deep Impact cometary probe and the Mars Exploration Rovers-- and continued his involvement in the performing arts-- at one point, I heard, he was playing theremin for a burlesque troupe.
I was amused, when I saw the 2007 IMAX documentary Roving Mars, to observe Steve's station in the MER control room as the Spirit rover landed.
Team members celebrate Spirit's successful landing.
In an unobtrusive location on the back side of the Attitude Control display, but placed where the high-resolution IMAX camera is sure to see it, is a little embroidered patch.
Like this one, it's the logo of General Technics, my favorite fan group. A little nod to Steve's Midwestern friends.
You might also enjoy a video where Steve tells a story about the Mars rovers.]