Messenger - Vol. 4, No. 3, Page 6
The Solar System's Analyst

     Henry C. Brinton, Delaware '57, is planning a few trips: An
outing to Saturn, a landing on Mars, a fast fly-by of Pluto. He may
also be meeting a comet. Brinton is chief of the Planetary Science
Branch in NASA's Solar System Exploration Division. Even when he was a
young man, it wouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to figure out
that Brinton was going to be, well, a rocket scientist.
     In high school in 1953, Brinton won the Philadelphia Area Science
Fair gold medal for a device measuring the movement of celestial
bodies. Around the same time, he built his first telescope: two Army-
surplus lenses from a tank's sighting mechanism mounted in a makeshift
metal tube.
     "The first time I took it out on the porch, I saw the four moons
of Jupiter and then the rings of Saturn. It had a profound effect on
my life," Brinton recalls.
     "It cost me $12.50 to see Saturn 40 years ago," he laughs. "Now,
I'm involved in a $2 billion mission to look at those self-same
     A physics and math major at Delaware, Brinton was a literature
buff, taking various English courses and publishing prize-winning
poems in Venture, a campus literary magazine. Three generations of
Brintons had been newspaper editors, so writing was in his blood. He
particularly remembers the day Robert Frost visited the English
department and read from the poem, "Fire and Ice," asking his
listeners whether their world would end in fire, or in ice.
     Brinton's career trajectory has been what he terms "fortuitous."
Graduate school at the University of Maryland led to summer work at
the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 1958, one year after Sputnik
sparked the Cold War competition in space. Brinton found himself
exploring the Earth's upper atmosphere, firing instrument-laden
rockets into the skies over Wallop's Island, off the coast of
     By the following year, his naval research group had been
incorporated into a newly augmented program, and, that summer, he was
offered a full- time job. The new program was called the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration.
     The space race was on. "Goodbye, graduate school." Within a
couple of years, President John F. Kennedy would declare that America
would lasso the moon.
     "The space age was booming," says Brinton. "I've been extremely
fortunate to be an observer of, and a participant in, the dawning of
the space age and the gusto that has characterized it."
     Though one of a select few to have been with NASA virtually since
its inception, first at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland,
near his Bowie, Md., home, and now at its headquarters in Washington,
D.C., Brinton has never lost that sense of gusto. To hear him describe
the projects he's worked on-the Pioneer probes to Venus in the '70s,
for example, or the recent observation of Comet Shoemaker-Levy's
spectacular collision with Jupiter-is to rediscover the imagination
and sheer romance of the space program during Brinton's tenure.
     It's a feeling Brinton doesn't want to lose; yet, he's well aware
that NASA has lost some of the cachet it once enjoyed, especially with
younger people. "Our 1996 landing on Mars will be the first landing in
20 years. It's hard for me to imagine that today's high school kids
weren't even born when those last landings were made, when the space
program made its greatest achievements," he says.
     NASA hopes to recapture young minds through some striking
technology, he says. For instance, one plan allows for grade school
children to pilot a remote-controlled car around the surface of Mars
from their classrooms.
     Another sign of the times at NASA is the budget revolution.
Brinton and other NASA executives are now working to produce what they
call "cheaper, faster, better" forays into space.
     The last of the huge "planetary flagship" missions-missions such
as Voyager-will be the Cassini trip to Saturn, a joint venture with
the European Space Agency. "Cassini is fabulous in its potential
return," says Brinton. "And, it will truly capture the whole world's
attention. But, we just can't afford so much investment in one project
     In the future, NASA ventures will be more limited, typically
costing only a tenth of Cassini's $2 billion price. Diversifying
outlay in this way will enable more frequent, more focused missions
and more potential targets.
     Moreover, such streamlined missions will be ideal for researchers
who previously might have tied up half a career in a single project.
"I started work on Cassini in 1987," explains Brinton. "It's due for
launch in 1997, arrives at Saturn in 2004, and sends data till 2008.
That's 21 years."
     Among the new-style projects, Brinton and his colleagues are
particularly excited about Rosetta, a comet rendezvous. As part of
this project, another joint venture with the Europeans, NASA plans to
hook a lander onto the speeding iceball of a comet's nucleus.
     Comets fascinate NASA for at least two reasons. First, they may
hold clues to the genesis of our planetary system. "Comets are
pristine remnants of solar system formation," Brinton says. "They are
the best-preserved remnants of the birth of the solar system, from its
far outer reaches, where the effect of solar heating is not a factor."
     Second, these tell-tale, primordial tourists promise insight into
one of Brinton's abiding questions-the origin of life. "One thing we
know is that comets are largely water and they possess large numbers
of organic molecules. One theory holds that the Earth's oceans arose
from an early bombardment of comets, which brought both water and
complex organic molecules." In this tumultuous scenario, Brinton says,
it's possible to envisage the evolution of amino acids, proteins, life
     If life's origin marks one boundary in Brinton's realm of
inquiry, the final physical frontier in his brief is Pluto and its
attendant moon, Charon. "Pluto is the last unexplored planet, which in
itself is appealing," explains Brinton, who currently is working on a
Pluto fly-by, possibly in cooperation with the technically adept but
financially hard-pressed Russians.
     "But, there's also a real question as to where Pluto came from
and why it's there. The inner planets-Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars-are
all small and rocky. Then, there are the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn,
Neptune, Uranus-huge things, monstrous balls of gas. Then, beyond all
these, you've got another little guy: A small, rocky, terrestrial-
looking planet. Why?"
     It's the kind of question a kid with a homemade telescope might
ask. And, in this case, it's asked with some urgency. Pluto recently
passed its perihelion, the point in the planet's 250-year solar orbit
where it sails closest to the sun.
     Relatively soon, says Brinton, around the years 2010 or 2020, the
cooling atmosphere will condense onto the planet's surface, rendering
analysis impossible. As flight to Pluto takes 10 years, any serious
launch delay means NASA won't have a comparable chance for centuries,
he says.
     A little way past his own, personal perihelion, Brinton-a very
down-to-Earth stargazer-knows that many of his questions won't be
answered in his career or his lifetime. He knows that many of the
projects he starts may be finished by someone else, their fruits
enjoyed only by later generations. But, this doesn't seem to faze him.
     He remains today what he was as a boy-forward looking and
insatiably curious. "They cannot scare me with their empty
spaces/Between stars," Robert Frost once wrote. Henry Brinton could
say the  same.
                                   -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '95 Ph.D