Meet: Dr. Christopher P. McKay
Space Science Division
NASA Ames Research Center
Who I am and what I do
I received my Ph.D. in AstroGeophysics from the
University of Colorado in 1982 and have been a research scientist with
the NASA Ames Research Center since that time. My current research
focuses on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life.
I'm also actively involved in planning for future
Mars missions including human settlements. He is involved in research
in Mars-like environments on Earth, traveling to the
Antarctic dry valleys, Siberia, the Canadian Arctic, and the Atacama desert to
study life in these Mars-like environments.
I was a
co-I on the Titan Huygen’s
probe in 2005, the Mars Phoenix lander misson for 2007,
and the Mars Science Lander mission for 2009. I
am currently the Program Scientist for the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program.
What helped me prepare for this job
As an undergrad I studied physics and mechanical engineering.
I think this was a good choice for me since it was a good foundation for
all the broad research approaches needed for my current research.
When I was in school I studied physics and from
physics I gravitated toward astrophysics. In 1976 I was a
first year graduate student in the department of Astrogeophysics
at the University of Colorado, Boulder. That same year Viking landed
on Mars. The results were most mysterious to me. Here was a planet
with all the elements needed to support life (CO2, H2O,N2) present
in its atmosphere, with evidence of liquid water in the past and
yet there was no sign of life. It seems like Mars had "the
lights on but nobody home". I slowly became more and more
interested in life and how it originates, survives and changes
In 1980 I applied to be a NASA graduate student Planetary
Biology Summer Intern. I was accepted and sent to NASA Ames working
with Jim Pollack. While at Ames I met Imre Friedmann of Florida
State University and became involved in microbiological
work in the dry valleys of Antarctica. I became more and more
interested in life and planets and continue to this day to conduct
research in this area with a special focus on Mars and with many trips
to the Antarctic.
What I like most about my job
As a scientist I find two things help me in my work. First the
chance to think deeply about problems and observations. It's not easy
for me to do this in my office (except late at night) and usually I do
my deep thinking when I am in the field (especially Antarctica) or at
meetings and while visiting other institutions.
The second important part of the creative process for me is talking
with colleagues. For me involving the language capability -- writing
works but talking is even better -- causes my brain to process information
in new and creative ways. Often in this process I discover connections
between things that I did not previously realize.