NASA astrobiologist Richard Kidd: Genetics, '87
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Betsy Towner Levine
Not many NASA scientists arrive at college with plans to become a veterinarian.
Richard Kidd's passion had always been the space program, flying rockets as a teenager and following all the latest news from the final frontier.
"I've been a space geek since I was a little kid, but in high school I moved to the Central Valley and got involved with Future Farmers of America. I figured that if I was going to stay in ag, I would become a vet," he said.
Today Kidd is an astrobiologist and project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he works on a variety of topics, from biochemical research to the design and operations of instruments that fly on space missions.
But as a freshman on the pre-vet track UC Davis, Kidd found his coursework less than interesting.
"I had a little too much fun in the dorms and my grades flagged," he said.
That all changed fall quarter of his sophomore year, when Kidd walked into the late professor Robert Thornton's biology class.
"Until that moment, I had no idea that we knew the structure of DNA, or about RNA or the translation of proteins," he said. "That blew my mind. So I switched to genetics and focused on biotechnology."
After graduation, Kidd worked locally for biotech companies such as Calgene before deciding to return to his childhood passion: outer space. He applied only to graduate schools that had ties to NASA.
Kidd ended up at Penn State, working with Professor Greg Farber, who was conducting biological experiments in space. There Kidd researched how to grow protein crystals in space, and placing experiments on two NASA Columbia missions and on the Russian space station Mir.
Later, during a biotechnology post-doc in New Zealand, Kidd saw an ad in Science for a biology trip to Antarctica – he applied and won a spot, there meeting the researcher who would serendipitously recruit him to JPL in 2004.
"An email came from out of the blue, and the position would be in the astrobiology group," Kidd said. "It was a little bit vague on the job description, but hey, it got me into the space program and that's all I cared about."
Since arriving at JPL, Kidd has had the opportunity to return to Antarctica, where his boss had a grant to study the crypto endolithic bacteria that eat sandstone in the Dry Valleys region of the continent. There, Kidd tested a gas chromatograph prototype with a team testing instruments that might eventually go to space.
In 2007, Kidd found himself on his first flight project, for which he supervised the building of the gas chromatograph for VCAM, or Vehicle Cabin Atmosphere Monitor, which was launched to the International Space Station in 2010.
"VCAM launched in 2010 on Discovery, and stayed up on the Space Station for three years," Kidd said. "It was designed for a one-year operation, but we ran it for two and it was up for three. That took up pretty much all my time for those years.
"We were going to throw it away, but we decided to bring it home on the Space X shuttle Dragon – JPL doesn't usually get its stuff back, so it's a thrill to see it in the office every day."
Currently his team is awaiting news on whether they will fly on the Mars 2020, having submitted one of 58 proposals for instruments to go on that rover mission. He is also planning a proposal for an instrument to fly to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that has water.
In addition to his work, Kidd takes the time to reach out to young students who are just starting their scientific journeys, volunteering for mentoring programs and judging science fairs. He spends his free time traveling – often with his lifelong best friends, those dorm buddies he had too much fun with freshman year. They have plans to go to Alaska this summer.
"That is, if an instrument doesn't get on one of these missions," he added. "I may not have the time to travel anywhere."
Despite that often-demanding schedule and the fact that he has now logged a full decade at his dream job, Kidd says it is still a thrill to drive past the JPL and NASA marquis as he arrives at work every day.
"And I should mention the wildlife here, too. A bobcat posed in front of the sign once," he said. "Other wild visitors to the JPL campus include mountain lions, bears, skunks, snakes and raccoons."
So perhaps there is still a little of the veterinarian alive and well inside the space geek.