By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
When fondly reflecting on the bittersweet end to the little Mars Rover that could, a JPL space research probe that was supposed to last 90 days but survived an amazing 15 years on the inhospitable red planet, thoughts turn to a Kern Valley resident who has had an unobtrusive, yet impressive impact on JPL’s space and earth atmospheric projects of his own. In person, Tom Livermore is quiet and self-effacing, and not quite sure why he’s being interviewed, if there’s really anything to tell, to tell the truth. Let’s see about that.
Born in the small town of Silver City, New Mexico, to a schoolteacher mom and a dad who managed the local Building and Glass Supply Shop, Livermore started earning his keep at a very young age. “I delivered papers and worked for my dad at the shop. I learned a lot there. I learned how to work.” As for school, well, “I was smart but didn’t study. I was more interested in girls and cars.” Although Livermore did get into the University of New Mexico, he quickly flunked out, returning home to get a job and marry his high school sweetheart, Elaine. And that was his turning point. “She started me on the right path. She really got my mind turned around.” So, after working for a summer at the local gas station, where he “quickly figured out that wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Livermore returned to UNM, where he and Elaine started a family that included two daughters, and ended up getting his Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering in 1968.
After obtaining his degree, Livermore quickly found work that moved him and his family around the country a lot over the next 10 years. First, he landed a plum job at Raytheon in Boston, which laid the groundwork for his ensuing career trajectory. Next Livermore worked on developing “classified” undersea sensing technology at Texas Instruments in Dallas, returned briefly to Raytheon, then on to Sperry Microwave in Clearwater, Florida. While in Clearwater, Livermore worked on two major projects: developing “millimeter wave radar” technology, designed to track and help destroy military tanks, “We called them tank killers”, and obtaining his Masters from the University of South Florida.
During this period Livermore took a couple of years to travel to Puerto Rico to take “charge of digital subsystems, electronics and receivers” on the “world’s largest radio telescope,” a major National Science Foundation project done in conjunction with University of South Florida, Cornell University and managed by the Arecibo Observatory. As if that weren’t enough, Livermore also started his own company, Advanced Applied Technology, where he developed technology for munitions manufacturing and performed radar studies. To his chagrin, Livermore “learned I’m not a good businessman,” and soon went back to working for others.
In the early 1980s, Livermore signed on with a little-known company called Security Tag Systems that developed a product that changed the retail industry worldwide. “You know those sensors that go off when someone tries to leave a store with merchandise? They had bugs that made false alarms go off, which meant angry customers and lost business. Our technology got rid of false alarms, which is extremely difficult to do. Sensormatic bought it and put it in stores all over the world.” After that project was completed, Livermore relocated to California to work on the W.M. Kek Observatory Telescope Project managed by Cal Tech and UC Berkeley. “I had applied two years earlier, and thought, oh well. Then I got a phone call. It was such a great opportunity, we packed up the whole family and moved.”
While Elaine utilized her degree in Psychology to work as a Marriage and Family Counselor and established a home base for their family in Pasadena, Livermore’s work on the Telescope Project in both California and Hawaii opened other doors. “A lot of people on that project also worked at JPL. Before that I didn’t even know what JPL was. It felt like an extension of the Cal Tech Project, so I got interested and asked if I could work there.” At JPL, Livermore became the Project Manager on several notable missions, including designing cameras for the Cassini–Huygens mission, commonly called Cassini, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency to send a probe to study the planet Saturn and its system, including its rings and natural satellites.
Livermore also got the opportunity to be Project Manager for the Cloud Sat, an Earth orbiter, that, like the Mars Rover, was supposed to last just two years but after 14 years is still going strong. The Cloud Sat measures cloud structure and water content in clouds, a vital component in studying climate change. “Clouds are actually one of the critical parameters in analyzing and predicting climate change, because they’re one of the biggest unknowns. Clouds help regulate the earth’s temperature, trap heat, absorb and reflect. Before Cloud Sat, satellites couldn’t look beyond a cloud’s surface, but this penetrates and measures from within.” Livermore’s contribution was considered so vital, that even after his retirement he still consults on the project for JPL, “to keep it moving. They might get five more years out of it.”
Next Livermore was made Chief Engineer for the Earth Science Missions, and then Project Manager for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), the first orbiting NASA satellite to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide on a global basis. The project had its ups and downs. “In 2009 Kennedy launched it, and it went straight into the ocean. That’s what you would call a bad day.” So Livermore’s team went back to the drawing board. “We went to the Failure Review Board to find out what went wrong. It’s extremely difficult to make sure you’ve got it all right with these very complex missions. Sometimes we make mistakes. You can’t just call a tow truck and bring it in for repairs. We always end up finding five or six things we could have done differently. Sometimes we can recover. And then sometimes we don’t do it right and it works anyway. We get lucky. In this case, we went back to work and made another one. We called it the OCO2. I retired before it was launched, but it was successful, and like Cloud Sat, it was only supposed to last two years but it’s still going strong.”
After over 20 years at JPL, Livermore was finally ready to retire. “Everyone there is so wonderful. They know so much, and you learn so much. It was always a learning experience. That’s why I stayed there so long.” The Livermore’s looked all over California for a place to call home, and discovered the Kern River Valley. Why here? “When we first moved to California, I learned to canoe on whitewater and just fell in love with it. It’s challenging, because canoes can fill up with water and you have to be able to run rapids without taking it on, and even though mine’s made out of tough Royalex, I still break ‘em all the time. But I love it, and Squirrel Valley is close to the Kern River. It’s just a phenomenal little community. I’m very fortunate to have found it. We built our house here.”
Squirrel Valley had another appeal – its proximity to the small commercial Kern Valley Airport, where Livermore now spends the majority of his free time to feed his passion for building and flying planes. It’s a hobby that Livermore discovered had some striking similarities to his work at JPL, when the Kitfox S7 Super Sport he’d built ended up crashing, or rather, flipping over onto its roof in November 2016. “Just like on the OCO project, I found there were at least six things I could have done differently so I didn’t crash that day. I went back to work and rebuilt it. It took two years, but now the plane’s up and running great.”
Aside from flying his own plane, Livermore donates his time and expertise to the Aeronautics Club for local High School students he started in conjunction with the Rotary Club of the KRV. Local KVHS standouts Gabby Williams and Tyler Cazares were two recent successes. “Sometimes it’s hard to get students interested because it takes work. I’m a technologist, a physicist, a scientist and an engineer. To learn to fly, you have to learn all those disciplines. But when they get through, they have knowledge and skills that can carry them beyond what they learn in school.”
These days, Livermore enjoys flying his self-made plane, is “getting ready to get in the water again now that my plane is finished,” enjoying time with his wife of 54 years, “it took awhile for Elaine to whip me into shape,” and practicing his Shotokan Karate, a strict Japanese martial arts discipline, at home. “I started practicing in 1999 for health, but it became life changing for me. It taught me that when things get difficult, don’t look around at what the world’s doing wrong. Look strictly at yourself. It changed my whole approach and outlook on life.”
It turns out that when writing about Tom Livermore’s life, there’s quite a bit of a story to tell, and it’s one that’s not over yet.