Commons Speaker #3 – Rob Staehle

Harley was honored to welcome back an outstanding graduate as our third formal Commons Speaker in February. Robert Staehle (’73 alum) and his wife, Lori Paul, flew into Rochester this week from their home in California to work with our students and faculty, and for Rob to present to the broader community as a Commons Speaker. Their time at Harley on Tuesday and Wednesday was evenly split between the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools, as we tried to get as much contact time with the students scheduled as possible in our new model of mini-residencies with our Commons speakers. Robert Staehle works for JPL (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and was the primary driving force behind NASA’s New Horizon mission to Pluto.

At the evening presentation, Staehle linked his career path in aerospace back to his time at Harley when he pursued an independent study to get out of six weeks of Physics class. While he knew from an early age that he wanted to be involved in space, it was the acceptance of his experiment to be sent up to Skylab which really kicked things into high gear for him. At the Jet Propulsion Lab, Staehle was involved in many projects and missions. When he was “taunted” by a postage stamp in 1992 (Pluto–not yet explored), he took that as a personal challenge which then sparked years of pursuing a mission to Pluto. Earlier in his career, he had met Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto (then Planet X). There were many cutting-edge and innovative approaches which Staehle and his team used to streamline both the equipment and the budget for this Pluto mission. The spacecraft was successfully launched in 2006 and traveled for years to finally make its flyby past Pluto on July 14, 2015.

He shared some of the incredible images of the surface of Pluto and its associated satellites (its moon Charon was the only known one, but three were discovered after the launch of the spacecraft). Throughout the evening, Staehle’s humble manner and straight-forward delivery helped the audience grasp the magnitude of his work and the impact of the Pluto mission. Data from the two-day flyby is even now being relayed back to NASA, which will then be analyzed and digested, and will certainly drive significant research projects into the future. The capacity crowd had many questions for Staehle after the formal presentation, which he answered easily and with great insight and optimism for future space exploration.



During his time on campus, Staehle was able to push into one of Carli Rivers’ 7th Grade science classes to talk with them about what would be necessary to sustain life on Mars. Many of the students had seen the movie The Martian, in which JPL features prominently, and were able to speculate about the authenticity of being able to create water and grow food on Mars’ surface. The students were eager and stimulated by the engaging discussion! Several now have plans to visit Mars, if possible.


At divisional assemblies, Staehle shared the history behind his motivation to pursue exploring Pluto, the timeline of the mission, and some stunning images of Pluto and space sent back from the flyby back in July 2015.


On the morning of his flight back to California, Rob Staehle came to Harley for a casual time to meet and greet current parents, students and faculty who may have wanted to ask questions or missed the other presentations. He happened to run into Alex DeSantis (retired English teacher) who had started teaching at Harley the year of Rob’s graduation (1973). Several parents and students took advantage of the time to speak individually with Staehle. Who knows? Maybe future space discoveries will be linked back to this opportunistic visit by one of our alumni leading a life of great purpose and inspiration!

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