Statement of Purpose

Nathaniel E. Putzig

July 20, 1999

    One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of a warm July night when I was four years old. My parents awakened all their children and called us into the living room, where the television was turned on. I clearly recall sitting on the floor, thinking what a momentous occasion this must be, for my father had a great distaste for what he called "the idiot box", and was very restrictive of our watching it. Soon, I was transfixed by the images coming from the small black and white screen, too young to fully appreciate their meaning and implications for all mankind, but old enough to be forever changed by the experience: for the night was July 20th and the year 1969, precisely 30 years ago today. Nearly everyone who was alive at that time has these same images burned into their minds: the spectacle of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder from the Lunar Module and setting foot on the surface of the Moon.

    This event sparked a life-long fascination with space. By the fourth grade, I was papering the back wall of my classroom with a giant scale model of the solar system, accompanied by a report on the known physical statistics of each planet. Later, when I perceived the severe contraction of the space exploration program in the years after Apollo, I began to have grave doubts about the practical aspects of considering a space related career, and started to focus on other interests. During my first years in college, I developed a new fascination with geology, and, having an aptitude for math and physics, I decided to take up studies in geophysics. I was enthralled by the idea of being able to "see" through the surface of the earth and thereby remotely determine its structure and composition. In graduate school at Rice University, I participated in the acquisition, processing, and modeling of continuous offset seismic data across the California crustal transition zone. We produced an image and model of what we believe is an remnant of the Farallon oceanic plate imbricated between the modern Pacific and North American continental plates. With the completion of my Masters, I left school to pursue a career as an exploration geophysicist in the oil industry, where for the past eleven years, I have engaged in the acquisition, processing, and interpretation of seismic data from various basins in the US and around the world.

    A few years ago, I heard a radio announcement soliciting Mission Specialist applicants at NASA and was immediately inspired to submit an application. I began to realize that I retained much more than a passing interest in space exploration, despite years of efforts literally focused in the opposite direction. I have come to understand that although my interest in the science of geophysics remains strong, I have found that the pursuit of hydrocarbons does not fully satisfy my desire to engage in stimulating and forward-looking scientific inquiry. This, combined with the recent and ongoing Lunar and planetary missions, has rekindled my interest in getting directly involved in the space exploration effort.

    I intend to pursue a doctoral degree in planetary geoscience. Ideally, I would like to apply my geophysical knowledge to the advancement of our understanding of the other planetary bodies in the solar system, with the eventual goal of aiding in the human exploration thereof. I believe my experience lends itself to working on projects involving the design, acquisition, processing, and interpretation of geophysical data on and around planetary bodies. I have not formulated specific plans for a thesis topic, but have already begun an informal overview of past and present planetary studies, with the objective of finding potential avenues of research to either improve upon experiment design or to fill in gaps in understanding through analysis of existing and forthcoming data. Given the number of recent and planned Mars and Lunar missions, I anticipate greater opportunities there and thus plan to concentrate most of my preliminary efforts on those bodies, with the understanding that my investigations may eventually lead my research focus elsewhere. After completing my doctorate, I would like to continue doing research in planetary science, with an emphasis on surfaces and interiors of planetary bodies. I desire an active involvement in mission planning, execution, and data analysis, through an association with either an academic or government institution.

    I understand that my eleven years outside the academic world may present me with some difficulties, both technical and cultural, but I am fully committed to surmounting those obstacles and am confident in my ability to do so. I also believe that the practical experience and skills which I have obtained in the oil industry will serve me well in accomplishing my goals for doctoral research and beyond.