Never send a man to do a robot’s mission.

Equipped to explore the rough terrain on Mars, the rover Curiosity will try to determine if the planet was once capable of sustaining life. (Paul DiMare)
Air & Space Magazine

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The glassed-in observation gallery above Leger and Cullins was thick with tourists, many of them Japanese snapping photos, but the two engineers were oblivious, focused on refining the “hand-eye” coordination of the rover’s robotic arm and its cameras through remotely transmitted computer commands.

For a non-engineer, observing such tests can be tantamount to watching paint dry. The rover’s arm moves in slo-mo, servo motors whirring somnolently. However, for Curiosity team members like Cullins, a former mechanical engineering professor from the University of California at Riverside, little could be more fulfilling. “Analyzing, building, and testing robotic systems is something I have done over and over again, starting in graduate school,” he says. “While [Curiosity] is bigger and more complex than anything I have worked on before, the same engineering design and test principles apply. There is never a dull moment, even on a long day.”

When people ask him what he does for a living, Cullins says, “I tell them I play with very complicated and interesting toys.” ’Twas ever thus at JPL. The lab traces its roots to an autumn afternoon in 1936, when a bunch of rocket enthusiasts and Caltech students dubbed the Suicide Squad decided to test a rocket engine and, in the process, set fire to Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco canyon, not far from JPL’s present location.

The squad eventually got booted off Caltech’s Pasadena campus after their experiments were deemed too loud and scary, so members decided to set up shop back in the canyon, working out of tarpaper shacks. By 1943, with World War II raging, the shacks had been replaced by more permanent structures and given an appropriately important-sounding name—the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Workers designed and constructed jet-assist rockets that allowed U.S. aircraft to take off in shorter distances. They also built guided missiles in response to Germany’s deadly V-2 rockets.

When the Soviet Union surprised the world in 1957 with Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, it was JPL that countered the next year with Explorer 1, the first American satellite to reach orbit. The lab has since managed more than 80 unmanned spacecraft missions, including about two dozen that are still flying. On many of those missions, lab workers engaged in a tradition thought to bring good luck: gobbling peanuts before orbital insertions and planetary landings.

As the story goes, the practice began nearly 50 years ago, during NASA’s problem-plagued Ranger program, in which spacecraft were supposed to send back photographs of possible astronaut landing sites just before crashing into the moon. It was July 1964, and a JPL staff member whose identity has been lost to the ages purportedly was munching peanuts when, finally, Ranger 7 started streaming back pictures. Must’ve been the nuts, somebody remarked. It was meant as a joke, but they’ve been eating goobers at JPL ever since.

Guess what will be on the menu for Curiosity’s rendezvous with Mars?

For now, Grotzinger is spending long days with his scientific team, going over final preparations, checking and cross-checking. “Our mission may or may not be the one that gets lucky,” says Grotzinger. “But I believe that if we take our lessons learned and feed them into the future, we will enhance our chances of success.”

Small comfort, perhaps, when he heads home at night and lays his head on the pillow.

David Freed is the author of the novel Flat Spin (Permanent Press, 2012). He wrote about fractional jet ownership inthe August 2011 issue.

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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