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This Get to Know post is the latest in a series of posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary scientists emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS. 

How is Randy Kirk contributing significantly as an emeritus to the current mission of the USGS, your mission area, and your science center? 

Randy continues to be an extraordinarily influential scientist in the planetary science community. Randy is viewed internationally as a leading expert in multiple fields related to planetary mapping. Randy continues to be intimately involved in several high-visibility planetary missions including ones designed to further explore planetary bodies in the outer solar system. In addition to being an excellent representative of the USGS, Randy is also keenly interested in involving the next generation of USGS planetary mappers in several upcoming missions.

Justin J. Hagerty (he/him/his), Director 
Astrogeology Science Center 
U.S. Geological Survey 


What attracted or brought you to work for the USGS in the first place?

I have been interested in both astronomy and geology most of my life, and in space exploration at least since Captain Kirk debuted on television when I was six. Planetary exploration and geoscience seemed like the ideal way to merge those interests, and I began preparing seriously for a career in the field as an undergraduate. 

Astrogeology Scientist Emeritus Randy Kirk with fellow Caltech-er Al, at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles.
Astrogeology Scientist Emeritus Randy Kirk with fellow Caltech-er Al, at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, for the Europa Clipper meeting in February 2023.

I came to the USGS straight out of graduate school at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Two of the greatest scientists in USGS Astrogeology Science Center (ASC), Gene Shoemaker and Larry Soderblom, who were also research scientists at the USGS, were visiting professors at Caltech while I was in school. There has always been a strong Caltech-ASC connection. In addition to Shoemaker, Soderblom, and myself, many other USGS Astrogeology scientists have gotten their degrees there. I was very aware of the USGS, but it wasn’t my direct goal to go to Flagstaff, where the ASC is located. 

There are not that many places where one can do this kind of work in the U.S.: Mainly only at a handful of university departments, NASA, and the USGS. The USGS operates the ASC, but NASA is its main customer and pays for the planetary work done there. I knew hiring was infrequent in the USGS, so when a position opened, I applied eagerly and was lucky to be selected. 

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an emeritus?

I worked for the USGS from 1987 to 2014, so 27 years of employment, and approaching 10 years as an emeritus after that.

What was your last title/position at the USGS before you retired and became an emeritus?

I was a geophysicist/research geophysicist. Planetary science is extremely interdisciplinary by nature. My work has ranged from surface and interior processes on planets and satellites to photogrammetry, cartography, geodesy, and remote sensing. Physics is the ideal background for all of that.

What science center do you answer to as an emeritus?

The Astrogeology Science Center, which was called the Branch of Astrogeology for much of my time there.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS? Or, describe a highlight of your career. 

I’m extremely proud to participate in exploring so much of the solar system for the first time. The opening of a new frontier is a one-time event in history, and I was born at just about the ideal time. During my career, I worked with almost the whole solar system: planets, moons, and even a few asteroids and comets. I’ve participated in at least 14 planetary spacecraft missions, both U.S. and international. The topographic mapping done by the group I led has been used in a lot of scientific studies, and it has been essential to the U.S. Mars exploration program. Every spacecraft that got our help mapping its landing site (nine, so far) has landed successfully. I’m not claiming we were responsible for the success of these missions, but bothering to assess potential landing sites with every tool available is symptomatic of a broader commitment in the missions I’ve been involved with sweating all the details that are necessary to success. It’s clear that the Chinese team took their landing site selection equally seriously, so it was no surprise when Tianwen-1 succeeded in landing in 2021. Before that, the first 11 missions that tried to land without our help had all failed. My personal contributions have led not just to papers, but to numerous maps, globes, and videos of virtual “flyovers” of the planets. I also got the opportunity to design covers for several journals, including National Geographic and Nature. That’s several things, but all under the heading of getting to be a part of exploring the solar system.

Randy Kirk Hiking Neptune's Moon, Triton.
Hiking on Neptune’s moon Triton. Randy is actually on Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona. The backdrop is a computer-generated perspective view of Cipango Planum based on topographic data Randy generated from a Voyager image in 1989. This was one of the first scientific uses of his photoclinometry software for making topographic models and led to one of the first planetary flyover videos produced in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

My thesis advisor at Caltech was a theorist’s theorist, and the scientific part of my career involved the geophysics of processes on bodies from Titan and Triton (very cold) to Venus (very hot). I also had a strong interest in remote sensing. As part of my thesis, I developed software for something called “photoclinometry” (also called shape from shading), a way of making digital topographic models (DTM) based on the brightness of different parts of an image. After I joined Astrogeology, I led a team that adapted the leading commercial digital stereogrammetry system to work with images from planetary missions. Those techniques led to me being involved in lots of missions. Mars Pathfinder was the first project in which we used the digital stereo capability, piecing together hundreds of images taken by the lander to map the area around it. In other missions, we worked with images taken from space, both with digital cameras and with imaging radar. (For example, here, and here you see some perspective views of Venus based on our processing of radar data, and here you can see a lot of high-resolution DTMs of Mars made by our group and by others using the techniques we pioneered.) A couple of these missions spanned almost my whole career. I wrote a proposal to join the RADAR team on the Cassini mission to the Saturn system shortly after joining the USGS in 1987, and the mission didn’t end until 2017 (see here and here for two of the videos based on my processing of Cassini RADAR data, and here for a map of the north pole of Titan). I joined the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) team in 1992 when it was part of a Russian mission. That mission failed but the camera later flew on the European spacecraft Mars Express, which is still operating and has years of life left.

What led you to decide to become an emeritus?

I retired much earlier (age 54) than I was expecting because of a confluence of events. Several space missions that had provided a major part of my funding support for many years were in the process of winding down. At the same time, the U.S. space program was enduring substantial budget cuts, partly as a result of the economic crisis that began a few years earlier. I was thus facing a major effort (and great uncertainty of success) to come up with new ideas, write proposals, and win support for new projects in an extremely competitive environment. The early retirement opportunity that the USGS announced in 2014 provided an alternative. Such opportunities do not occur often, so even though I was far from what I had envisioned as my time of retirement, I had to give it serious consideration. So did a lot of other USGS employees of my acquaintance. We lost about half a dozen people retiring early at that opportunity, and nearly a dozen more in a period of a year around that. My wife, a software developer for the USGS, was one of those. I was glad of the opportunity to spend more time with her at home, with our Dalmatians, after many years of working closely together.

As for the Emeritus Program, it was crucial to my decision to retire. Although my main projects were winding down, there was still a lot of work to do. Becoming an emeritus allowed me to continue and conclude that work after retirement, without having to worry about starting new projects unless I wanted to.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future?

Since retiring, I’ve been involved in efforts to propose several new missions to NASA. One is a mission called CAESAR to return a sample from a comet nucleus for study on Earth. That was not selected on its first try but is being developed further for the next opportunity to propose. I think it has a good chance of being selected. The other mission is the Europa Clipper. I was part of the team that proposed a camera system called EIS to NASA. This mission was approved, and our cameras were selected, so we have been building them and planning out the mission. Our cameras have recently been installed on the spacecraft, which is being readied to launch late in 2024. Others designed, built, and tested the cameras; my role has been to help plan how we will use them to take images of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and develop the software tools to turn the data into maps, topographic models, and geophysical insights. My participation in both CAESAR and Clipper is an investment in the future of the Astrogeology Science Center. The missions will start returning data in the 2030s when I probably won’t be nearly as active. My goals have been to get the missions selected and off to a good start, get the USGS involved, and help bring onboard younger USGS staff who will be around to do the work in the next decade.

Something else that I’ve been working on is documenting the topographic mapping techniques I’ve helped develop over the years and measuring their effectiveness. In the last few years, I’ve written a detailed paper about how stereo mapping is done for one Mars camera (HRSC) and coauthored a paper about its use for another camera (the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, HiRISE). As part of the preparation for Europa Clipper, I wrote one paper that used simulated stereo images of Europa to measure how the quality (resolution and vertical precision) of the DTMs depends on lighting and coauthored a related paper that looked at the quality that we could achieve with real images of Europa. In 2021, I wrote a paper about the quality of Mars DTMs- mostly stereo, but also some refined by photoclinometry. Since then, we’ve been working on assessing the quality of DTMs of the Moon, comparing my photoclinometry method and another, newer approach that is much more automated as well as more powerful. We’ve gotten a lot of insight into how to make best use of the software tools and have published one conference paper so far. In those last two papers, we used stereo DTMs from much higher resolution images as the “truth” dataset to evaluate our products made from lower resolution images. It’s a very powerful technique, and we have a long list of follow-up questions we want to address with it. 

Randy Kirk at an open house at the Luftwaffe Museum, Gatow.
While in Berlin for a Mars camera team meeting, Randy tries out the cockpit of a Soviet-built Mi-24 helicopter at an open house at the Luftwaffe Museum, Gatow. The radio-controlled helicopters he flies at home are much smaller and unarmed!

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an emeritus?

I enjoy being much more the master of my own time. In a tactical sense, that means working fewer hours per week and (apart from the inevitable telecons) the hours that are convenient for me. Strategically, that means picking the projects that I want to work on, and not having to worry about writing proposals to bring in full-time funding for myself plus a bunch of our technical staff.

There’s also a lot to be said for being exempt from some (unfortunately, far from all) of the paperwork that goes with government employment. I still have to deal with the processes for travel authorization, publications, and training, but at least I’m done with timekeeping and promotion panels!

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an emeritus?

As I mentioned, a big part of my recent work has been to participate in the formulation, proposal, and implementation of spacecraft missions. Voyages to the outer solar system take a long time, so I probably wouldn’t have stayed around for the operations phases of these missions even if I hadn’t retired early. By agreeing to participate as an emeritus, I’ve been able to get the USGS involved in the missions and get them off to a good start. My CV got me invited to participate in these projects, but from the start I’ve involved one of our younger Astrogeology scientists, Dr. Mike Bland. He’s brilliant, but not yet as well-known as he's going to be (he’s rapidly getting there) so I can help by acting as a matchmaker and sharing some of my experience. Mike’s main research interests involve the history and behavior of icy bodies, but he also has a secondary interest in mapping techniques. Right now, he’s shadowing me, learning how the missions work and how to plan for remote sensing and mapping. Later this year, we’ll trade places, and he will become the master (i.e., full Co-Investigator on mission teams) and I the student shadowing him. I plan to remain just active enough to do the fun stuff, like watching the rockets launch and seeing the first data come back, without having to sweat all the details.

Randy with one of NASA’s T-38 jets used for astronaut training at Ellington Field.
Randy with one of NASA’s T-38 jets used for astronaut training at Ellington Field.

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great?

You bet! At Caltech and in the USGS Astrogeology program, Gene Shoemaker, and especially, Larry Soderblom were terrific mentors. The first thing one would notice about them was their enthusiasm about science and life in general, and their openness in letting that enthusiasm show. Of course, they’re both intellectually brilliant and hardworking as well. Gene was a source of inspiration and a great teacher. Among other things, he taught me to drive a stick shift in about 10 minutes so that I could drive from Caltech to Mount Palomar to aid in the search for near-Earth asteroids. I’ve driven a stick ever since and got co-credit for discovering and naming asteroid 3412 Kafka. In fact, I was recently asked to reminisce about this for a film being made about Kafka. 

So was Larry, but he also had a finger in almost every one of NASA’s pies and was instrumental in getting me and many other students and USGS employees introduced to a lot of the people who develop and run space missions. Those introductions greatly expanded our opportunities to participate in the great adventure of exploration. It also set a good example about scientific karma: being generous with time, ideas, and data to others doesn’t dissipate one’s treasures- it increases both one’s productivity and the joy of work. In addition, Larry is a dear friend and a fantastic traveling companion. We frequently traveled together to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is a NASA Center with Caltech employees, as well as to destinations around the world. We’ve had stimulating conversations with each other and colleagues from all over, and always found time to sample the local food, drink, and cultural opportunities. 

Randy Kirk (right) and Astrogeology planetary geodesist Brent Archinal (left) at the controls of NASA’s Flying Guppy.
Randy Kirk (right) and Astrogeology planetary geodesist Brent Archinal (left) at the controls of NASA’s Flying Guppy transport aircraft at Ellington Field.

Ray Batson was also a mentor of mine. He was a geologic mapper in Flagstaff, and one of the original Moon and Mars mappers. I came in to do geophysics at Flagstaff and they asked me to step into the mapping group when Ray retired. I got involved in that, and he mentored me in what mapping was. He was a good friend and, a great traveling companion, and a terrific pilot. He built a biplane in his living room! By the time I worked with him, he had graduated to a super high-performance Glasair III, pictured in his biography). He once took me for a ride in it, which was quite a thrill.  We did some aerobatics, crossed the desert at 300 mph at about 100 feet off the ground, then actually flew down into Meteor Crater, where Ray took some glee in pointing out the wreckage of a small plane that had crashed in the crater years before. 

If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t take advice from strangers with time machines. Especially if they claim to be you.

If you could travel on a time machine to any era in time, what would it be and why?

I would visit 1978 and tell my 18-year-old self a joke that he can use if he is ever interviewed and asked hypothetical questions about time travel.

Everything is interesting. I love history, but I took almost all science courses. I thought I could read about history outside of school, and that’s a promise to myself that I’ve kept successfully.

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?

My last trip for work before the pandemic was to a meeting of the Mars Express HRSC camera team in Nantes, France. A major perk of my job that came from participating in international missions like Mars Express and Cassini was the opportunity to travel to interesting destinations around the world. The place I visited most often, apart from JPL, was Berlin, where the HRSC team is based. I fell in love with the city, got to know it well, and made some of my closest friends there. Since the pandemic (and the end of U.S. involvement in Mars Express) I’ve only had to travel a few times a year, and only domestically.

Randy holds the titanium cover to the Europa Clipper electronics “vault” at the mission meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Randy holds the titanium cover to the Europa Clipper electronics “vault” at the mission meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico in November 2023. The cover is engraved with the poem "In Praise of Mystery" by the U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limón, and will protect the “Message in a Bottle” microchips engraved with the names of more than a million people from around the Earth.

What was the last (or favorite) book you read?

I’m a voracious reader, so I can’t limit myself to just one. I recently finished “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, which was truly remarkable. Recent research has shown that just about everything you think you know about the development of “civilization” is completely wrong and that humans have organized their societies in ways totally different from the nation-states that we have almost everywhere today. I also have to mention “The Mission” by David Brown. It’s a very entertaining account of the long and improbable journey by which the Europa Clipper mission that I’m part of became a reality. For a trip to a desert island, I might well select the “Solar Cycle” by Gene Wolfe. It’s a very sophisticated science fiction epic spanning 11 novels, with extremely unreliable narrators, dense symbolism, and arcane vocabulary, so it provides some of the longest-lasting reading enjoyment I know.

What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess?

I think the answer has three parts, and the Serenity Prayer provides a nice formula for expressing it: as a scientist, I try to cultivate the courage and creativity to come up with new hypotheses, the diligence to test existing ones, and the intellectual honesty to know the difference. 

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows?

Don’t be afraid to pursue the kind of retirement that appeals to you. There is no “one size fits all.” I’ve continued and expanded some of my professional projects as an emeritus. Many of my colleagues and mentors, including my father, who was a biologist, took on expanded responsibilities in education and outreach. But if you are ready to walk away from work and do something different, do it!

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