Rational Imagination

 Rational Imagination
Charles Kohlhase (left) balances rocket science and art

The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid — 13801 Kohlhase — for Charles Kohlhase on Jan. 27. "It is in an eccentric orbit — appropriately — between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter," Kohlhase says dryly.

It is a fitting tribute to the man who calls the exploration of space the ultimate adventure and has gained international recognition during his 44-year career with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he has devoted much of his attention to the exploration of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

It also comes just after the 25th anniversary of the epic Voyager Grand Tour mission that sent two spacecraft to Jupiter and Saturn and the outer planets. In January Kohlhase appeared in "The Cosmic Journey," a two-hour special on A&E celebrating the Voyager anniversary.

Kohlhase, who received a physics degree from Georgia Tech in 1957 and resides in Pasadena, Calif., was mission design manager for the Voyager and Cassini missions and was involved in the earlier Mariner and Viking Mars missions.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded Kohlhase its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, for his mission design and project engineering contributions to the scientific successes of the many planetary missions during his career. "It was an emotional moment" when he learned of the award in May, Kohlhase says. "I am deeply touched."

While Kohlhase has been on the cusp of space exploration, he has also garnered recognition as a photographer, digital artist, author, educator and environmentalist. Kohlhase worked on the Mariner Mars 1964 and 1969 missions, and was navigation development leader for the follow-up Viking mission to Mars.

In late 1974, Kohlhase was named mission analysis and engineering manager for the Voyager mission that sent two robotic spacecraft to Jupiter and Saturn, with one continuing on to Uranus and Neptune. He guided the work to choose the best flight paths out of 10,000 possibilities, then charted precise flight paths for the two spacecraft, designing "gravity assists" from the planets during flybys for a "slingshot effect" to keep them on course.

It was his grandmother, Kohlhase says, who whetted his creative and adventuresome spirit in childhood, stimulating "right-brain thinking" by telling him adventure stories, encouraging him to read and exposing him to the beauty of nature, painting and architecture.

It was Georgia Tech, he says, that completed his leftbrain thinking with math and physics. He graduated with honors and was president of Tau Beta Pi. He went on to earn his master’s of engineering degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.

"The key is rational imagination," Kohlhase says. "A solid education and unbridled imagination are essential — allowing one to think both within and outside of the customary box."

Kohlhase joined JPL in 1959 as a junior engineer and gained recognition soon after. When he gave a presentation to a small design group in the spring of 1960 about sending a spacecraft to Mars, JPL director William Pickering, accompanied by Wernher von Braun, one of the world’s foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel, dropped by to listen.

The result was so successful that Walter Cronkite used the animations in a space program documentary. When Public Broadcasting Service television presented its "Cosmos" series, Carl Sagan turned to Kohlhase and Blinn to create the computer graphic special effect sequences.

"I escape whenever possible into wilderness travel, photography, model building, writing for popular magazines, golf, creating books and games, teaching, digital imagery and steadily easing into the world of the arts," Kohlhase says.

His favorite photographic themes are wilderness landscapes and wildlife, followed by old places eroded by time and urban cityscapes from the rundown to the magnificent.

"I truly love the wilderness," he says. "I logged 15,000 miles on one pair of Italian hiking boots over a 15-year period, including local hikes in the San Gabriels, the High Sierras and even remote Patagonia. I was never without a camera and, like John Muir, believed in ‘taking only pictures, leaving only footprints.’

"The great wilderness areas must never be destroyed for any reasons whatsoever — not for SUV fuel, not for ores to be mined, not for expensive vacation homes, not to solve population excesses, not for trade advantages or increasing market share, not for political compromise, not for any reason at all. We should all be Earth stewards, not Earth destroyers," Kohlhase says.

Kohlhase is enthusiastic about digital art. "I enjoy creating contemporary sculpture, architectural designs or science fiction and fantasy scenes," he says. "Many artists are finding the computer and its remarkable 2-D and 3-D capabilities essential to extending the limits of their work."

Kohlhase was commissioned to create a Mars scape for the 60th birthday celebration of Carl Sagan in 1995.

Three years later, he was appointed by the Planetary Society as director of PlanetTrek, a project to design and install a solar system scale model within the city of Pasadena over a distance of about five miles.

In 1999, his digital sculpture "Fugue" was selected for the Gallery 825 Southern California open art competition. In 2001, he created a 3-D model of a future colony on Mars set in the 22nd century.

Kohlhase officially retired from JPL in March 1998.

"I really intended to retire and do artwork and spend more time with family," he says. But in 2000, JPL invited him to return as an on-call, employee consultant to join the Mars

Program Systems Engineering Team, which conducts engineering studies for the future missions to explore Mars. He agreed. Since then, he’s been working on the team, which has international membership, about two days a week, while also assessing any special issues requested by the Mars program office.

Kohlhase is also on a review board for the Kepler project, which is searching for Earth-size planets around 100,000 other dwarf stars.

"We will eventually have a colony on Mars, but it’s a long time in the future," he says. "Sending humans there is very expensive. It probably will have to be an international mission to keep the costs down for any one country." It is the future that captures Kohlhase’s imagination and he expresses it in his art.

"My knowledge of science and technology drives me to imagine the future of human life, both on Earth and on other worlds, surrounded by its architecture, its advanced machines and perhaps a few surprises from the past," Kohlhase says.

"I yearn to turn my imagination loose for a journey without limits." Additional images of Charles Kohlhase’s futuristic digital art and wildlife and landscape photography may be viewed by logging on to http://artshow.com/kohlhase.

©2003 Georgia Tech Alumni Association

The Sculptor
Barry Woods Johnston carves out multidimensional life

Journey of the Steel

Forgotten Waters
Peachtree Creek’s mysterious past reveals Atlanta’s history