Mandan News

Mandan native named to Time most influential list

Richard Cook / Photo courtesy of NASA

Richard Cook / Photo courtesy of NASA

By Jessica Holdman, Lee News Service


Born in Mandan, Richard Cook was the son of an oil field geophysicist. Cook works for NASA and is among this year’s Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on Earth.

“I was always kind of a science and math kid,” Cook said.

It was that passion along with his curiosity and love of problem solving that eventually led Cook to be project manager of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars last August.

“It’s pretty inspirational what we’re able to do when we put our minds to it,” he said. He added that he hopes his naming on the list also will help with education.

“Getting kids interested in math and science is part of why we do what we do,” he said.

The Time 100 is “a list of the most influential people in the world. They’re scientists, they’re thinkers, they’re philosophers, they’re leaders, they’re icons, they’re artists, they’re visionaries. People who are using their ideas, their visions, their actions to transform the world and have an effect on a multitude of people.”

Cook said it is humbling to be named with President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

“It is surreal when you look at some of the other people on the list,” he said. He added that Mars exploration has been a team effort and he is just representing the many others involved.

Cook spent about six years in North Dakota, both in Mandan and Williston, before moving to Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. He now lives in Santa Clarita, Calif. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, Austin.

It wasn’t until his time in Colorado that Cook said he knew he wanted to be involved with space science. He said it was exploring and being able to go to places no one has been that drew him to it.

Cook joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in 1989.

During his career, Cook has worked on the Magellan mission to Venus. He was the Mars Pathfinder mission manager, operating the first rover, Sojourner, on the surface of Mars in 1997. He’s been involved with the Mars Exploration Rover project, which landed the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004.

Cook, along with others is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project, are using the Curiosity rover to investigate the environmental history of the planet.

Cook said it is believed that Mars was like Earth billions of years ago and there’s a chance there may have once been life on the planet. He said this mission is trying to prove that theory through chemical remnants. He said the project’s next step will be to drill into layers of rock to determine how the planet’s environment changed over time.

Cook encourages students interested in math and science to apply themselves in school and be curious. It may or may not lead to a career at NASA but he said it could lead to something equally as interesting.


(Reach Jessica Holdman at 250-8261 or