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B. Gentry  Lee

B. Gentry Lee

Chief Engineer for Solar System Exploration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

B. Gentry Lee

Chief Engineer for Solar System Exploration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory


B. Gentry Lee is chief engineer for the Solar System Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In that position, Lee is responsible for the engineering integrity of all the robotic planetary missions managed by JPL for NASA. His major recent work includes the engineering oversight of the fantastically successful and popular Curiosity rover mission to Mars in August 2012, the Dawn mission to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres, the Juno mission to Jupiter and the GRAIL missions to the Moon. Previously, Lee provided guidance and oversight for the engineering aspects of the Phoenix and twin rover missions to Mars, as well as NASA’s successful Deep Impact and Stardust missions.

Lee was chief engineer for the Galileo project from 1977-1988 and, after working in a variety of positions on the Viking project from 1968-76, was Director of Science Analysis and Mission Planning during the Viking operations. The historic Viking mission was mankind’s first successful landing on another planet.

From 1976 until 1981, Lee was the late Carl Sagan’s partner in the creation, design, development and implementation of Cosmos, the highly successful science documentary series for television that won several Emmys and the prestigious Peabody Award. In July 2009, Gentry Lee was the featured performer/narrator in Are We Alone?, a two-hour Discovery Channel documentary about life in the solar system.

In addition to his engineering work, Gentry Lee is a successful science fiction novelist, a futurist, a computer product designer, media columnist, lecturer and a television performer/narrator. Between 1989 and 1994, he co-authored four novels, Cradle, Rama II, The Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed, with revered science fiction grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke. All four books were New York Times bestsellers and were translated into over twenty-five languages. Since his collaboration with Clarke, Gentry Lee has written three more successful solo novels, Bright Messengers, Double Full Moon Night and The Tranquility Wars.

Lee received the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement in 1976 and the Distinguished Service Medal (NASA’s highest award) in 2005. In October 2006, he received the prestigious Harold Masursky Award from the American Astronomical Society and in June 2014 he received the Al Seiff Memorial Award, both for his contributions to planetary exploration.  In 2013, Lee was awarded the prestigious Simon Ramo Medal by the IEEE for “career excellence in engineering.”

Gentry Lee received a BA, summa cum laude, from the University of Texas at Austin in 1963 and an MS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. Lee has been giving lectures all over the world on subjects related to the future, space, and science and technology. His informative speeches touch upon the topics of extraterrestrials, the exploration of the planets and the critical importance of science literacy.

Speaker Videos

Ideas for Tomorrow

On Technology

On the Legacy of Viking

Speech Topics

A Vision of the 21st Century

Major biological breakthroughs toward the end of the 20th century basically guaranteed that not just medicine and health but also the fundamentals of birth, death, and all phases of life will be drastically altered by continuing discoveries throughout the 21st century. But the “Biological Revolution” will be accompanied by equally dramatic change in many other areas. In geopolitics, the complete integration of Europe and the rapid emergence of China, India, and Brazil will create new economic and military alliances. The world will eventually agree to reduce the anthropogenic contribution to global warming, but the exact form of that agreement will evolve over time and ultimately have a significant impact on our daily lives. New Earths will be discovered, planets around other stars, where water is liquid and life is possible. At the personal level, the availability of ever more appealing and sophisticated “virtual worlds” will cause a large fraction of the world population to spend less and less time and energy in the “real world.”

What will happen in the 21st century that will alter our daily lives as much as the cell phone and email? How can individuals, groups, and corporations keep track of the dizzying pace of change in so many dimensions and determine which innovations and discoveries will impact them the most? In “A Vision of the 21st Century,” Gentry Lee will address the coming changes and suggest a blueprint for being successful in the decades ahead.

Balancing Innovation & Risk in Engineering Design

Global competition and intense marketplace pressure have combined to increase the demand for more and more innovation in new designs. But innovation is always accompanied by risk – risk that the design will not meet its technical objectives and/or will significantly overrun its target cost and schedule. Over several decades the American robotic planetary exploration program has evolved techniques for tracking and assessing the risks associated with engineering innovation. Using the Mars exploration program as the example case study, and highlighting both the successes and failures of the program, this talk will examine the balance between innovation and risk in engineering design.

Balancing Innovation & Risk in Applying New Technology

The twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) landed successfully using airbags on the surface of the red planet in January 2004 after decelerating from over 10,000 mph to 20 mph in just six minutes. Their sister mission, Phoenix, landed gently on three legs in the Martian arctic in May 2008. In the summer of 2005, the Deep Impact robotic spacecraft smashed into the comet Tempel 1 traveling at a closing velocity of over 25,000 mph, while another, parent spacecraft photographed the collision. Space missions like these are enormous engineering challenges and require the use of innovative new technology to be successful. However, using new technology has formidable risks. Balancing the advantages of innovation against its inherent risks is one of the most critical of all design processes. Achieving that balance requires a careful understanding of “what bad things might happen” and a systematic approach to mitigating those risks throughout the life cycle of a product or a project.

Mars Exploration

The Power & Wonder of Science in Education

Extraterrestrials in Fact & Fiction