On March 5 China was invading Vietnam, Iran was in turmoil and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was at another crisis point. But in Pasadena, Calif., Dr. Edward Stone was oblivious to earthly news, his attention focused 440 million miles away. There, after a journey of 18 months, the Voyager I spacecraft was closing in on Jupiter. The first radio signals were beginning to come in to the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to be converted into photographic images. For the next 39 hours—the kind of tense, exhilarating hours all scientists live for and few enjoy—Stone’s eyes hardly left the monitoring screens.
Stone, 43, himself a physicist, is chief of science for the Voyager project to explore the outer planets, which means he is in charge of the 106 scientists analyzing information the Voyagers are sending back. (Voyager I is now on its way to Saturn, which it should reach in November 1980. Voyager II will approach Jupiter this July to fill in some gaps left by its sister ship.)
Stone also has his own favorite project—a study of cosmic rays, one of 11 major Voyager experiments. But, he says, he can’t devote too much of his time or JPL’s equipment to it. “I have to be very careful that I don’t have a conflict of interest. I have to be quite neutral.”
NASA’s $360 million Voyager mission (JPL works under contract) is, says Stone, “the kind of step one takes to test ideas. We take data and apply it to stretch our knowledge.” Voyager I—which at one point after its launch in 1977 sent terrible signals of false distress—passed within 170,000 miles of Jupiter’s swirling atmosphere of helium and hydrogen. Among the scientific trophies it has already sent back: surprising photographic evidence that Jupiter is a ringed planet (the ring may be pieces of a moon ripped apart by gravity), and close-ups of weather patterns and lightning in its atmosphere and volcanic activity on one of its moons. All such findings are important not only as pure science but because they afford a new perspective on such phenomena as the origins of life and weather here on earth.
Stone grew up in Burlington, Iowa, where his parents, Edward and Ferne, sold electric garage doors. “I could have been a mechanic, I suppose,” Stone muses. Instead, he found himself “interested in why things are the way they are. It was clear that scientists had a major impact on World War II, and that scientists could do unusual things. It was the appeal of learning new things, things that other people didn’t understand, that attracted me to science.”
Graduating second in his high school class of 200, Stone went on to a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago in 1964—with an experimental thesis that involved developing an instrument to measure cosmic rays. It was carried aboard the Discoverer 36 satellite in 1961. He joined the faculty at Caltech in 1964 and is now a professor of physics there, teaching both graduate and undergraduate students (though “not this quarter because of the close encounter”).
Fascinated as he is by space, Stone has a scholarly detachment toward sci-fi flicks like Star Wars. “I enjoy the special effects—I don’t get very absorbed in the story line.” He also is not entranced by the notion of blasting off into space for a firsthand look himself. “It’s a risky business and not worth the return I’d get,” he says. “I’d just be a sightseer. I can do things here by remote control.”
The two Voyagers should give him plenty to do, unless Congress refuses to extend the program’s funding, which runs out in 1982. They should remain in contact with Pasadena until 1990 (and will continue to cruise the universe for billions of years thereafter). Already, Stone says, Voyager I has provided “a saturation of new information which we will probably be studying in great detail for at least five years.” That is astrophysical language for “Eureka!”