What my father taught me: Peter Smith

Date:5 July 2013 Tags:,

What my father taught me: Peter Smith
The principal investigator of the Phoenix Mars lander mission – which found water ice on the planet— on discovering space.

A few months before I was 10 years old, on a cool October evening just after dinner, my father, Hugh Smith, shepherded my family and me outside on to the driveway in front of the house. A Rockefeller Foundation virologist, he helped to develop the yellow fever vaccine. He always had an unyielding curiosity and desire to share what he knew.

That night, the air was still. I remember a nightingale’s song coming from the huge Aleppo pine in the yard. I had some idea of what he wanted us to see – he had read that a Soviet satellite, the Sputnik 1, was due to fly overhead – but no clue what it would look like. I trained my eyes on the sky, trying to discern the patterns in the stars that gave meaning to the night. He told us Sputnik’s approximate flight path and when it would come into view. We craned our necks, straining to see it.

He pointed and let out a yelp. “There it is – you see?” he said, tracing an arc with his finger. Indeed, I did see it: a white speck moving silently and purposefully. He faced me and explained that for now, the Soviets had the advantage of us, but that our country’s future required dominating the space frontier. For my father – who grew up in a small South Carolina town in a home with no electricity or running water, and who witnessed the introduction of the car and radio – this was entirely thrilling.

Later, we listened on my shortwave radio to beeps coming from the spacecraft and wondered if it signified a threat. (I recalled Dad’s stories of the V-2 rockets that bombarded London while he was there, working for the Rockefeller Foundation.) Or perhaps the craft signalled the dawning of a new age of technology.

Within months, the US launched Explorer I. Thus began the Cold War space race and my fascination with space. As a boy, I satisfied this interest by reading science-fiction novels. In the ensuing decades, the passion sparked by that glimpse of a glowing dot in the night sky has driven me and defined my career.