Science & Tech

What’s Out There?
David Grinspoon ’82 helps NASA investigate unexplained phenomena

By Will Bunch '81 / September–October 2023
August 24th, 2023
Image of David Grinspoon wearing a dark hat and glasses looking away from the camera.

David Grinspoon ’82 is a man who’s always been ahead of his time, sometimes seemingly by light years. As a budding scientist, he proposed capturing solar power in space and beaming it back to earth—on his Brown application in 1977. The young man nicknamed “Space Case” by his high school classmates then took advantage of the University’s flexibility to craft an independent major in planetary science, becoming possibly the first American to hold such a degree.

Early in his career, Grinspoon took a keen interest in astrobiology and, in particular, the question of whether conditions for life exist on other planets. He did so despite what the legendary scientist Carl Sagan—a friend of Grinspoon’s father who’d mentored him as a youth—called “the giggle factor,” which as late as the 1990s saw many scientists refusing to take the search for extraterrestrial life seriously.

Few people are giggling today. And Grinspoon’s expertise in astrobiology has landed him a coveted slot as one of 16 experts on a NASA advisory panel crafting the space agency’s way forward on unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP. Interest in the topic has exploded since the Pentagon’s release of videos showing as-yet unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

“I was pretty psyched to be invited—even though the subject is so fraught,” Grinspoon says. He explained that the committee—expected to issue a report soon—is arguably a “thankless” task, since any findings are unlikely to satisfy either those convinced the government is covering up the existence of space aliens or others who still think the topic of extraterrestrial life is frivolous.

But for Grinspoon, currently a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona (although he lives nearly 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C.), the UAP project arguably isn’t even the most exciting thing he’s working on. He’s also on the science advisory committee for the NASA project called DAVINCI that aims to explore the atmosphere and climate of Venus, slated to launch in June 2029.

It’s a remarkable odyssey for someone fascinated with the cosmos since growing up in the heyday of NASA’s manned space programs of the 1960s and ’70s. Grinspoon said he arrived on College Hill in 1977 planning to study physics. But his very first semester he took a course taught by professor James Head (Geology 5, Mars, Moon, and the Earth) that “blew my mind and tugged me back to space.” He credits his Brown studies with Head—with whom he’s collaborated on some projects over the years—as well as the late Thomas “Tim” Mutch with launching his planetary sciences career into orbit.

Grinspoon has stayed on the cutting edge of planetary science ever since, including his pivot toward astrobiology in the mid-1990s as scientists began debating whether a meteor that hit Antarctica showed signs of fossils from Mars. He’s credited with major findings about the atmosphere around Venus indicating a history of water on the faraway planet, and with popularizing space science through his books like Venus Revealed and his frequent writings for magazines and websites. In 2006, he even won the Carl Sagan Medal, named for his long-ago mentor, from the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.

And yet somehow Grinspoon also finds time for his other teen passion: rock ’n’ roll. Today, Grinspoon—who used to perform with the Geeks at the Grad Center Bar on the Brown campus—is playing guitar and singing with a new post-pandemic band in D.C. even as he pines for a possible relaunch of his old Colorado combine the House Band of the Universe, which synchronized its planetarium shows. “Hopefully,” he says wistfully, “we’ll ride again.”

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September–October 2023