How did you get interested in the industry?
In junior high school I did a project on Jupiter. I wrote to a lot of places for help and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent me a huge ream of information from the Voyager mission. Looking at all those gorgeous photographs helped make me very interested in a career in space.
I did a PhD in electrical engineering, specialising in robotics. As I went along, I focused more and more on robotic control and from there into navigation – all along, though, I knew I wanted to work in space exploration.
What has your work on the Mars Rovers involved?
I started working on the Mars Explorer Rover project in the development phase and took on different roles as the mission evolved. My initial part was on flight software systems engineering and the command dictionary.
I had to gather a lot of information from the software developers and the eventual users about how they wanted to command the Rover. We had to keep in mind the operability issues that would only come into play years after that point. A lot of focus before the launch had to go into entry descent and landing (EDL) – it was the most critical part of the mission. We had whole specialised teams focused on the design and testing of EDL and the trades to be made in terms of mass and volume. We launched in summer 2003 and after the Rovers landed in January 2004, I continued to be lead sequence integration engineer and am now also tactical uplink lead – essentially the pitboss for the daily planning cycle.
What are the rewards for you of the job?
When we see the pictures and science coming back from Mars, it’s extremely fulfilling. On this mission, we have a very integrated science and engineering team, so the scientists keep us informed about their latest theories and discoveries – elsewhere there can sometimes be a bit of a gulf between the two schools.
And the challenges?
The part I find hardest is the managerial aspects I have recently taken on. I am excited by all the engineering aspects and training new people who don’t know the Rovers as intimately as the old guard.
When there is a problem with the Rovers, you’re suddenly very aware of the millions of miles between you and them. The most exciting thing about the job is when you manage to solve a problem with the equipment from hundreds of millions of miles away.
Working on Mars time is one of the most disassociating parts of the job. The Martian day is 40min longer than our day and our shifts kept moving forward 40min every day over a 90-day cycle. It was a powerful bonding experience for the team, however – we’re now back working on Earth time.
What advice would you give to people hoping to do something similar?
An important trait is to do systems engineering – step back and look at the big picture. Even if you’re working on a small piece of a project, it’s important to see how it fits in with the whole.
Also, if you have a general idea of what you want to do as you progress your education, think about what aspects of that are particularly exciting for you and pursue them.
The Rovers were originally only scheduled for 90-day missions and they are still running – they could die any time, they could die tomorrow, but we’re doing what we can and as long as they’re running, we will keep operating them.
Source: Flight International