Jacob Bleacher
RIS4E Theme 2 Leader
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Right Hat for the Right Stuff

By Anthony DeNicola

Leaders of teams wear all kinds of hats: They need to be motivators, moderators, decision makers and logistics coordinators. Jake Bleacher, the RIS4E field team leader in Hawaii, wears all those hats. And he’s known for another one: A black leather, Crocodile Dundee-style hat that’s become his trademark since he started wearing it on geological expeditions 10 years ago.

“I was going out in the field one time and thought it would cast some good shade,” Bleacher said. “So I wore it and it has become an integral part of my field persona since. People have actually told me that I’m not allowed to come into the field without it.”

While Bleacher’s choice of headwear is important on treks to volcanic deserts under intense sun at high altitudes, it takes slightly more than a good hat to lead a NASA research mission that hopes to have an impact on the future of manned space exploration.

A geoscientist and volcanologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Bleacher says he always had a fascination with space and nature. “My parents always said I asked a lot of questions and I always wanted to know how things worked, plus I loved space and thought I wanted to be an astronomer,” Bleacher said. “But when I got to college I took a geology class and I realized there was a career path that would combine all my interests into one thing and that was planetary geology.”

In 2006, Bleacher earned his Ph.D. in geological sciences from Arizona State University. He applied for a post-doc fellowship at Goddard and the stars aligned for him.

“I got to Goddard when NASA was starting to change its focus on human space flight and started thinking about going back to the Moon and beyond,” Bleacher said. “But there was still the question, what will the astronauts do when they get there? Because I was someone already doing field work, I had created a niche for myself, so I was brought in to help bridge the gap between human exploration and field science and train astronauts in field geology.”

Bleacher’s current research primarily focuses on comparing the development of volcanic activity on the Earth, Moon, Mars and asteroids. In addition to training future and current astronauts in field geology, he also tests the capabilities of new instument technologies developed at Goddard.

“I know the astronauts, I’ve trained them and they’re my friends,” Bleacher said. “So my big drive is to make sure we are developing the kind of instrument technologies that, when humans eventually land somewhere, really help them do the job. They will essentially be the scientists representing the entire scientific community, anyone of which would want to go.”

Anyone, it seems, except him. Unlike many on the RIS4E field team, Bleacher has not applied for the astronaut program and doesn’t plan to. It would be fascinating, he says, but he’d have to give up too much.”

“I’ve thought long and hard about it, but the job I want to do is the job I’ve got,” Bleacher said of his decision. “I really like my job here on Earth, exploring volcanoes. It would be great to study one volcano on Mars but I would have to give up every volcano here on Earth.”

One of the volcanoes he would have to give up is Kilauea, Hawaii’s smallest but the world’s most active volcano. In 1974 it pumped out nearly five square miles of lava. Studying that lava is the reason Bleacher donned his hat in early June as part of the RIS4E field team. But unlike in the past, when he was just another scientist on the ground, Bleacher found himself in the role of field team leader, tasked with managing a dynamic group of scientists handling an array of scientific instruments.

“The nice thing about the leadership role is you have an overview of everything and you’re contributing to all the teams,” Bleacher said. “But the nice thing about being a team member, focusing on a specific task, is you get to get down there and get dirty. It’s hard to pick one.”

That enjoyment may be why Bleacher likes getting input from the members of his team, something they’ve told him they appreciate. “I want to know what they think the right choices are, but make it clear that, in the end, I will be making the final decision,” he said. “The job of a leader here is not to rule the roost, but to keep the team working as a cohesive unit.”

But the question remains: does the hat inspire good leadership or does the hat become imbued with the leadership qualities of the wearer? Bleacher thinks the relationship is symbiotic. “The hat came along with me from the beginning so I guess it learned with me. It gained the experience as I did and it is just part of the uniform now.”

> Back to the story <