Trailblazer of the Week

Walton R. Williamson

6 November 2020

Dr. Walton R. Williamson likes the idea of laying a map down for future astronauts.

“The Lunar Trailblazer mission is focused on true lunar exploration,” says Williamson, Lunar Trailblazer’s Instrument Manager for the High-Resolution Volatiles and Moon Mineralogy Mapper (HVM3). This imaging spectrometer will advance our knowledge of lunar water’s form and distribution on the Moon’s surface by extending past infrared measurements to longer wavelengths, particularly around 3 micrometers, where water’s distinct signatures are more clearly visible. Williamson is managing the team that will design, then build and calibrate HVM3 to achieve these high-precision measurements.

“HVM3 is a very complex instrument that requires multiple disciplines including optics, mechanical design, thermal design, and electronics,” he explains.

The many components require a lot of oversight. Williamson spends the majority of his time communicating with leads in each area of Trailblazer’s science teams, and he is responsible for coordinating their intersection to complete the entire instrument.

“I also coordinate with the principal investigators, project manager, and spacecraft leads to ensure that the instrument will fit the needs of science, fit within schedule and budget, and fit on the spacecraft,” he says.

It’s no small effort to seamlessly unite these specific requirements together.

“It’s a challenge to communicate effectively with so many different people with different experiences,” says Williamson, adding that such contrasts can actually make his job that much more exciting. “I also enjoy learning about each field from the very talented people we have on Lunar Trailblazer.”

Williamson also notes that the Lunar Trailblazer mission is taking risks that can’t be taken on other, larger missions with bigger budgets and longer schedules.

“The challenge is to only take measured risks,” says Williamson. “We have to work with the experts to really understand threats and impacts in a variety of areas.”

Williamson is from Austin, Texas, but he really grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico—one of the most significant places in the history of U.S. space exploration and technology. It was in New Mexico that some of the very first high altitude rocket tests were performed in the 1930s and later became a center for flight development during the space age of the 1960s. Growing up in such an historical place provided Williamson with many field trips.

“My school would go on tours to Sandia Labs and see cutting edge technology in lasers and energy, as well as visit the National Atomic Museum,” he says.

Following his childhood in the Southwest, Williamson attended Stanford for his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. While there, he helped run the student television station and worked as an intern at NASA Dryden, now called NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert near Edwards, CA. His NASA internship was especially encouraging in shaping his future career and present outlook.

“My mentor was Armstrong’s former chief scientist Ken Iliff. His dry humor, sharp mind, and perseverance definitely had an impact,” he recalls.

Then Williamson went to graduate school at UCLA where he focused on designing GPS technologies to improve flight navigation.

“My thesis was developing a navigation system to fly multiple F-18’s in formation for drag reduction,” he says. “It was tested at NASA Dryden.”

Before joining the Lunar Trailblazer team, Williamson worked with GPS instruments and GPS sensor fusion, including some imaged based applications. At JPL, he was an instrument manager for GPS receivers on Jason-3, SWOT, NISAR, and Sentinel-6. Those missions were focused on continuing and augmenting data sets documenting changes in the Earth and our ocean.

“After those deliveries, this opportunity for Trailblazer came up and it seemed like a really interesting problem with a good mission,” he says. “This project has a lot of future applications.”

Williamson is most excited by the prospect of finding water on the Moon and considering that the next humans to walk the surface will most likely land at a spot Trailblazer imaged.

“A large concentration of ice water would be very beneficial and could save the space program lots of money,” he says. “Lunar water will enable lunar habitation. Water is life—and it’s also heavy. Having it there and being accessible will change how we view long term lunar exploration.” This is because water, in addition to being an essential drinking water source, can also be a source for oxygen and rocket fuel.

Back on Earth, Williamson likes to spend time swimming, hiking, and working in his yard. The impact of the current coronavirus pandemic has also adjusted his resume and daily life.

“With Covid-19, I am currently moonlighting as the family Physical Education teacher,” he says, but learning to adapt to new circumstances and constraints is already a big part of Williamson’s role as HVM3’s instrument manager.

“We all have limits that hinder our ability to learn at some time,” Williamson says. “Calm perseverance will carry you through more difficult problems and times. I always think of the Rosetta Stone, which was the first time modern people could understand ancient Egyptian because the stone contained the same message in three different languages. Look for your Rosetta Stone; something that describes the same problem in a different way.”

Luckily, Williamson won’t have to go it alone on Trailblazer.

“I think the team is very hardworking and is very knowledgeable,” he says. “I’m glad to be a part of that team.”

Dr. Walton R. Williamson is Lunar Trailblazer’s HVM3 Instrument Manager and Trailblazer of the Week!

Trailblazer of the Week is an ongoing series showcasing the diversity of experience and expertise that supports the collective determination of the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.