After spending a career in planetary exploration, Charley Kohlhase dreams not of the past, but of the future. What does he envision someday? Humans living on Mars, continuing to study the planet in great detail. Of course, NASA has a lot of work to do before human missions are possible, but today's robotic missions are paving the way by helping us understand the Martian environment and its potential impact on human health. Once we learn more, Kohlhase believes, the spirit of exploration will make Mars an irresistible destination for future astronauts.
"Like all pioneers, humans are curious to know what other worlds are like," says Kohlhase. "Exploring is deeply rooted in our very nature."
Because Kohlhase can't go to Mars himself, he uses computer programs to create artistic, futuristic scenes of what Mars exploration could be like far in the future. One of his most recent images is called "Canyon City, Mars, Circa 2130." The image depicts an otherworldly family gardening scene. A spacesuited father and daughter, five generations from now, tend to a sheltered cactus plant on the surface of Mars. It evokes the simple pioneering spirit of working the land in a new world, while suggesting the fantastic possibilities of people from Earth actually residing on another planet.
He describes the vision that led him to create the work: "In 2130, the leaders of my imagined Canyon City will hopefully be young scientists who will conduct the first plant experiments in special field-controlled domes. They will search for ways to leave the red planet both Mars-like and Earth-like if at all possible. They must have food, of course, much of which can be grown in hydroponic greenhouses, but they will also yearn for natural fruit, perhaps from desert-like plants that remind them of Earth."
A longtime space explorer himself, Kohlhase's childhood imagination was enriched by adventure stories and books of science fiction and science fact. He built model airplanes and dreamed of flying. At age 11, he taught himself Boolean algebra and used it to design a small puzzle-solving machine. His studies of math and physics were fueled by his wonderment at nature and visions of what might be possible in future explorations of the universe.
As a relatively new employee at JPL in 1960, he presented the first feasible flight path for a mission to Mars to then-director William Pickering and rocket innovator Wernher von Braun. Kohlhase lived the dream of flying such a mission in the mid-1960s with the Mariner 4 Mars mission, again in the late 1960s with Mariners 6 and 7, and in the mid-1970s, with the Viking mission to Mars.
He was the mission design manager for the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 project, the historic robotic spacecraft mission that completed the so-called "Grand Tour" of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The spacecraft, still operating, are now well beyond the planets and on the interstellar leg of their mission, nearing the boundary of the Sun's influence. After the Voyager mission, Kohlhase was the science and mission design manager for the Cassini mission to Saturn launched in 1997 and set to arrive at Saturn in 2004. Though now "retired," he is currently a member of the Mars Program Systems Engineering Team, helping to improve the resiliency and future of the Mars Exploration Program.
Artistically, he is a devoted and experienced photographer of forty years, with creative digital imagery added to his repertoire within the past decade. Kohlhase's images have appeared in numerous venues including Sierra Magazine and other Sierra Club outlets, several one-year installations at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Pacific Design Center Showcase Idea House, 1994 Best of Photography Annual, various public buildings and private galleries. As in his "Canyon City" image, much of his artwork draws upon his scientific and engineering expertise as the basis for imaginative depictions of future explorations.
Kohlhase has frequently collaborated with educational organizations to help inspire science and math teaching. He is a frequent speaker at NASA conferences for educators, and often uses his artwork and the work of others to help teachers build bridges that will lead more students to appreciate and study science and math.