YSU alum investigates Mars

November 28, 2012  |  
Trevor Graff

Trevor Graff works in a simulated NASA space vehicle.

Trevor Graff, ’99

The next time there’s a national news report on Curiosity, the NASA rover exploring the surface of Mars, feel free to brag that YSU graduate Trevor Graff plays a key role in the groundbreaking study of the “red planet.”

Graff is a planetary geologist at the Johnson Space Center, working with a team of scientists to interpret research data the rover has been transmitting since it landed on Mars in August. Employed by Jacobs Engineering and Science Group of Houston, he works closely with NASA research scientist Richard Morris, the co-investigator for two of Curiosity’s 10 information-gathering instruments.

For example, the unmanned rover is equipped with a chemistry camera that works by blasting laser beams at rock surfaces on Mars, creating visible plasma plumes. Graff and other scientists replicate that procedure on various types of Earth rocks in a specially designed laboratory chamber where the atmospheric pressure and gasses are similar to those on the surface of Mars. By comparing the resulting plumes, they can determine which Earth rocks are most similar to those on Mars.

Graff is also charged with traveling the world to gather rock and soil samples for testing and comparison. “Hawaii is one of the most interesting locations because of the volcanic material, and I’ve had the difficult task of going there many times,” he quipped.

Recently, he was chosen to serve on a five-member crew that simulated a human mission to an asteroid, living and working in a model space vehicle for three days. Even though NASA’s space shuttle program has been retired, the agency is working to send a manned vehicle to an asteroid by 2025, said Graff, and is building a rocket that could one day get us back to the moon, or even Mars.

Researchers focused on the study of Mars are also pushing for a NASA program that could return Mars soil and rock samples to earth, he said. “That’s the direction we’d have to go to really determine if there is, or has ever been life on Mars.”

Graff said he was “a nature geek” growing up, an Eagle Scout, who enrolled at YSU with plans to study forestry or environmental engineering. He changed course after taking an elective geology class and found a mentor in Ray Beiersdorfer, professor of geological and environmental sciences.

Beiersdorfer was doing some research work at NASA at the time, and he recruited Graff as a student intern in his junior and senior years. “If it wasn’t for Dr. Ray (Beiersdorfer), I would never have had the opportunity to work with NASA,” he said.

Graff earned two bachelor’s degrees at YSU in 1999, a BS in geology and a BA in earth science. He’s certain that his references from NASA scientists he worked with as an undergrad helped him gain admission to Arizona State University’s highly respected planetary science graduate program, where he earned a master’s degree in geology.

Graff stayed on at Arizona State for another four years, working in partnership with NASA scientists on the first generation of Mars rovers, the Spirit and the Opportunity, and that experience paved the way for what he’s doing now.

Besides being a scientist, Graff serves in the Army Reserves. He was commissioned as an officer in YSU’s ROTC program, and his 16 years of Reserve service has included deployments to Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.

He and his wife, Paige, live in Friendswood, Texas, a Houston suburb, and she shares his adventurous spirit. They are both certified SCUBA diving instructors and have dived together in exotic locales around the world. They also enjoy kayaking, wind surfing, camping and backpacking.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Fall 2012.)