Scientist: Driving Mars rover “Coolest job on the planet”
By Elizabeth Landau | CNN
PASADENA, California (CNN) — On Earth, Scott Maxwell drives his red Prius without paying much attention to the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. He’s lived in the same neighborhood of Pasadena for 18 years, after all.
When he’s driving on Mars, though, every rock he encounters is a new discovery, a step toward humanity’s knowledge of the planet he hopes to visit some day.
Maxwell has the dream job of driving rovers on Mars, and he’s gearing up to take control of the biggest and most sophisticated one yet: Curiosity. He’s one of about a dozen people at NASA tasked with steering the $2.6 billion vehicle from more than 100 million miles away.
“It’s a priceless national asset that happens to be sitting on the surface of another planet,” Maxwell says of the rover, which is set to land on Mars at 1:31 a.m. ET Monday. “You better take that damn seriously.”
Maxwell loves to talk about how much he loves his job, and his effervescence is infectious, say colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home to Curiosity’s mission control.
“The thing that always impressed me about Scott was just the passion that he has for what we’re doing. He just loves being a rover driver,” says Steve Squyers, a Mars expert who’s worked closely with Maxwell. “He thinks he’s got the coolest job on the planet, and he’s right, I think.”
The names of the rovers Maxwell has driven so far — Spirit and Opportunity — speak to his upbeat attitude and thirst for immersing himself in what he enjoys doing.
Through his blog and Twitter account @marsroverdriver, Maxwell interacts with all sorts of self-professed “rover-huggers” — people who really love rovers.
Earlier this week Maxwell tweeted, “VIP seats for opening night of @IndyShakes’s Comedy of Errors! Last chance to see a play before the baby comes Sunday.”
The baby, of course, is the SUV-sized Curiosity, coming to Mars after years of planning and preparation. It’s been more than eight months since it left Earth, and no one can be sure exactly how it will behave, says Maxwell.
Over dinner in Old Pasadena this week, Maxwell and his girlfriend, Kim Lichtenberg — a planetary scientist also working on the rover mission — playfully compared it to having a child, though neither has had children.
“We’re all going to be kind of like new parents,” Lichtenberg says.
“Watch it take its first steps,” Maxwell adds.
Landing Curiosity will be such an amazing feat of engineering that NASA is billing the process “seven minutes of terror.”
Like anxious parents, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are eager to see the rover arrive safely, and so are the reporters who have flooded the NASA campus.
Maxwell says he has confidence in the JPL team responsible for the entry, descent and landing of the spacecraft. But if the amazing maneuver goes wrong, the whole effort will have been “all for nothing” for the many people who’ve sacrificing family time and vacations to pour their hearts into it.
“That seven minutes tells you whether the last seven years of your life had a point,” Maxwell says.
A voyage to break down the wall
Maxwell’s eyes widen with joy when he talks about the parts of life he thinks are “awesome”: His girlfriend. His other NASA team members. The Independent Shakespeare Company (@IndyShakes). His first lemon drop cocktail. The Cotswolds.
Something about Maxwell’s thin frame, boyish features and the way he gets giddy over esoteric things resembles Jim Parsons’ character on “The Big Bang Theory,” although Maxwell is more jovial and socially gracious than Sheldon Cooper. His arms seem almost impossibly long as they move about while he explains the rover driving process.
With a youthful complexion and hair that finishes in a short tail on the back of his neck, it’s impossible to guess Maxwell is 41. The first time he ever had lunch with Lichtenberg, she thought, “Aw man, he’s way too young for me. Way too young for me.” Later she found out she’s about six years his junior.
Lichtenberg, fair and blond, grew up with the space program close at hand: Her father is astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, a NASA payload specialist who’s flown on two shuttle missions. She has a Ph.D. in planetary spectroscopy, which deals with the interaction of matter and radiation in planetary environments.
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Maxwell, on the other hand, had long assumed that a career in space was out of reach.
He was raised in an economically depressed rural area of eastern North Carolina, although his accent could just as well place him from the Midwest. His parents divorced when he was 7; after his mother moved to Florida, he spent time bouncing between the two states until college.
His father was a railroad engineer for most of his career, although he previously worked as a dean at various colleges.
Carl Sagan was Maxwell’s childhood hero. He adored watching the 13-part TV series Sagan hosted called “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” first broadcast in 1980 on PBS.
In one episode, the scientist talked about what it would be like to go to Mars. Only last year, Maxwell watched the episode again and remembered it mentioned a prototype Mars rover, which at that time seemed a futuristic idea.
“I realized in that moment that that’s where I get this sense that I’ve grown up and stepped into this fantasy world that I had when I was a kid, because I have,” he says with excited emphasis.
As a child, Maxwell loved imagining what it would be like to go to other planets. But as an older teen, he assumed he would study hard and end up in a career that seemed more common and attainable than space exploration, such as banking.
“This kind of thing always seemed to me like the kind of thing other people do,” he said. “There’s me. And there’s this big invisible glass wall. And there are people who are doing stuff like that.”
Maxwell believed he could never cross over to the other side of glass wall.
It wasn’t until he got hired by NASA, after completing his master’s degree in computer science, that he realized the wall never existed.
Maxwell is living his fantasy now, but he hasn’t always had such luck. At age 20, while double-majoring in English and computer science at East Carolina University, he learned that his swollen lymph nodes were a symptom of stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer had spread in his neck and chest. He went through nine weeks of radiation treatments and has been cancer-free ever since.
Just days after the treatments ended, he left for graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Going from a state school to a prestigious engineering institution, he was floored on the first day when a professor expected everyone to have already learned the material in the first six chapters of an algorithms textbook. Maxwell had to quickly catch up on his own but says he loved learning so much at once.
And though he feared he couldn’t afford his master’s degree, he found work with the research and development arm of the U.S. Army and left school debt-free.
He had intended to go to Illinois to work toward a Ph.D., but ultimately the cancer changed his priorities.
“I was interested in going out and making tools for people to use,” he says.
JPL came to recruit at his school in fall 1993, and he remembers telling the recruiter how he was fascinated by NASA’s Voyager mission — twin spacecraft that had photographed Jupiter in unprecedented detail. His excitement apparently made an impression: He landed an interview at JPL in January 1994, and started his job that June.
Today, he lives on a quiet Pasadena street, in a cozy house that boasts some of his nerdy treasures, including an extensive collection of science fiction books. “But then my life became science fiction,” he said, explaining why he’s reading more Shakespeare and Dickens these days. As he shows off his collection, his cat Molly purrs, demanding his attention. The brown and black marbling on her otherwise white fur looks somewhat like the Martian landscape, although that’s not why he adopted her.
A glass-paneled cabinet hosts metallic “Star Wars” and Mars rover lunch boxes. There’s a vial of a substance he calls KimSim, a material his girlfriend helped create to figure out how to rescue the Spirit rover after it got stuck in a “sand trap” of alien soil on Mars in 2009.
And there are stones from the Cotswolds, an area in England he bubbles with excitement over. He says, “Wait, wait,” like a child about to demonstrate a new toy, and runs to get a book filled with images of the region. He likes the views from the ground better than the aerial shots — ground-level is more like what a rover would see, he explains.
The wider, well-manicured street perpendicular to his own, with larger houses and roses growing on front lawns, is the sort of place where he’d always wanted to live, but he says the houses are “wicked, ridiculous, crazy expensive.” Still, he loves the house he bought, with the added bonus of a lemon tree growing at its side.
It’s a bit like how he loves his job driving a vehicle on Mars, even though he dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
“Things in my life aren’t quite how I pictured them,” he said, “but they rhyme.”
At NASA, not just a sojourner
It’s been 18 years, but Maxwell still occasionally interrupts himself to say things like “I can’t get over that I work at a place called the Spacecraft Assembly Facility” when he mentions that building at JPL.
For the first couple of months there, Maxwell felt like he was in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language. He says it was fun to be clueless about the acronyms his colleagues were throwing around. “Now, I’ll use 10 acronyms in a sentence and won’t think twice about it,” he says, “but you kind of have to pick up the culture.”
He started out working on software to decode data from spacecraft. He also wrote software to help coordinate various teams working around the world to get commands to spacecraft.
In the mid-1990s, Maxwell was asked if he wanted to work on a mission called Mars Pathfinder. Maxwell had no idea what that was, and working on the team didn’t appeal to him.
What he didn’t know was that Mars Pathfinder would mark the first time NASA had sent an untethered robotic device to another planet. The 90-day mission was carried out by a rover named Sojourner.
“I just thought that was super cool, that really just captured my imagination, that you could go for a walk on another planet,” he says. “Not with your squishy, frail, human body, but you could design a robot body that would go to Mars for you.”
Although he passed up that opportunity, another chance came in 1999 when Brian Cooper, who’d driven Sojourner, approached Maxwell about developing rover-driving software for the next Mars mission.
“More or less before the words were out of his mouth — like, ‘Do you want to come work on this project?’ — I was like, “YES! Yes! I’d like to come work on this project, that’d be the coolest thing in the world, yes!”
That mission was eventually scrapped, but their efforts were put toward a different endeavor that did take off: Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Mars exploration rovers that launched in the summer of 2003.
Maxwell helped write the software that rover drivers would use for the pair, as well as for Curiosity. He would soon move from writing software to using it to command — and ultimately drive — the rovers.
His first time commanding a rover was on his 33rd birthday, in 2004. Spirit hadn’t started moving across the Mars surface yet, but Maxwell and his colleague were checking out the instruments. Maxwell told the rover to ignore the state of a switch on one of the instruments — not exactly driving, he said, “but by golly, I commanded a Mars rover that day.”
The real drama came about three weeks later when he got behind the wheel, so to speak. He remembers obsessing over what he had to do, checking everything multiple times, before sending the driving instructions.
He remembers going home afterwards: “I’m lying there, looking at the ceiling, realizing there’s a robot on another planet doing what I told it to. And that notion of, ‘I’m getting to do this. I’m not dreaming about this anymore. It’s real for me now.’
“I reach out across 100 million miles of emptiness and move something on the surface of another planet. That feeling has never left me.”
The opportunity to drive
You might think a rover driver would control the vehicle using a joystick and virtual reality interface, much like a video game. That’s not how it works. The reason for that: Signals take at least four minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (it could take up to 20 minutes, depending on where the planets are in their orbits), and then the same amount of time for confirmation data to come back.
So rover drivers don’t tell the vehicle to move forward and then wait several minutes for confirmation that it happened before sending the next command. Instead, drivers spend their days writing directions for what the rover will do the next day, sometimes even a few days if it’s a holiday weekend.
Maxwell and colleagues spend the Martian night generating a single batch of commands, which they send to the rover after the vehicle sees sunrise. Drivers work in overlapping 8- to 10-hour shifts preparing the rover for the day ahead. “It’s as if we’re e-mailing the rover its to-do list for the entire day,” Maxwell explains. And at the end of its day, the rover sends information back saying what it did. During the Martian night, the rover goes to sleep.
That might sound risky, letting a vehicle roam around on a planet for several hours without someone guiding its every move in real time. But safety checks are built in. Curiosity will know how far its wheels are moving up and down, so it will stop if it heads into something deeper or higher than the drivers had planned. In that sense, the rover is more like a boat than a plane — stopping is a fine course of action if additional direction is needed, Maxwell explains.
Curiosity can travel up to about 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) per minute, says rover driver John Wright, but in practice it will go a lot slower because the science team will want it to stop and examine its surroundings. A rover may stop and take photos, or — as will be the case with Curiosity — the scientists will want it to stop to perform chemical analyses.
Photos the rover takes of its surroundings help the drivers determine where to send it next. The drivers use a 3-D simulation created from the photos to visualize what the rover is seeing. The virtual model of Mars lets drivers work out which commands to transmit each day. Video games have helped several rover drivers hone their skills, including Maxwell, since driving on Mars requires planning and multidimensional thinking.
Any game that shows a large open world, such as “World of Warcraft,” can hone these skills, says Cooper, the first rover driver and the only person to have driven all three rovers NASA has landed on Mars.
“You’re essentially driving a robot with a keyboard 100 million miles away,” says Maxwell. “You can’t always believe what the simulator tells you. If anything does go wrong, there’s no one there to hit the panic switch.”
Besides being manually controlled, the rover also has the capability to drive by itself, detecting hazards through cameras and driving around them. This autonomous mode takes more time, however, so it’s employed less often.
Curiosity is landing in Gale Crater, where it may find evidence the area once was a lake. It will take at least a year to drive Curiosity to its ultimate destination, Mount Sharp, where the rover will examine layers of sediment for organic molecules, which would be signs — but still not proof — that life may have existed on the planet.
Maxwell will see some of the images Curiosity takes before anyone else does, but he loves that the public will get to view them soon after on NASA’s website. “I get to take everybody in the world along in the backseat,” he said.
Beyond rover driving, Maxwell genuinely loves the science of Mars. The rover science team has its own busy agenda, but during the mission involving Spirit and Opportunity, Maxwell would point out rocks that might be interesting to examine further, or suggest photographing the sunset on a given day. Sometimes the science team would take him up on his ideas.
“He’s always looking to try to get as much out of the vehicles as possible,” says Squyers, lead scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, which involved Spirit and Opportunity. “Scott is, within the bounds of safety, one of the most enthusiastic rover drivers there is.”
The spirit of his first car
There’s a special love that Maxwell has for Spirit, the first rover he ever drove. Spirit was only supposed to last about 90 days, but the rover kept operating for more than five years.
When Spirit got stuck in May 2009, Maxwell felt like he was in an Indiana Jones movie, trying to rescue the vehicle. The rover’s wheels broke through a crust and the vehicle fell into a sandy trap called Troy, like a car driving into a pool of flour. Even before the accident, one of its six wheels had quit working.
Maxwell and his colleagues were almost able to pull Spirit out, but not quite. They had figured out a technique, but with the Martian winter coming, the solar panels were tilted away from the sun. Plus a second wheel malfunctioned during escape tactics. Over the winter, something broke — Maxwell says humanity may never know what.
The Opportunity rover, which Maxwell has also had a hand in driving, is still operating. Still, he is nostalgic about the Spirit.
“It’s very much the way you feel about your first car,” Maxwell says. “Spirit was my first car. She was just on Mars. That was the emotional closeness that I felt to her.”
Even after it stopped moving, Spirit was able to continue scientific operations until March 2010, when NASA lost communication with it. The place it got stuck turned out to be extremely interesting — while trying to escape, the rover found soil rich in minerals called sulfates, a component of steam, suggesting that there may have once been conditions on Mars able to support life.
It — or rather “she,” says Maxwell — accomplished this with an attitude of “persistence and determination and never say die.”
Scientists kept trying to communicate until May 2011, when they gave up.
“Spirit will be there for a million years, but I sure hope that there are Martian cities surrounding her,” Maxwell says. He envisions trails commemorating the rovers’ paths and hopes people someday will be “walking the Spirit trail.”
Loving to be curious
Given the busy schedule and odd hours, it helps to be in love with someone who works on Mars, too.
Maxwell and Lichtenberg had been hearing each other as disembodied voices on NASA conference calls for years, while Lichtenberg was a graduate student at the University of Washington in St. Louis. She visited JPL with her adviser on the five-year anniversary of the Spirit and Opportunity mission.
They met in person at a group lunch; each thought the other was attractive. Maxwell spent a couple days working up the nerve to ask her out and finally did on the day beloved science fiction author Ray Bradbury gave a surprise speech at NASA. Maxwell began by asking her, “Is anybody doing anything tonight?” She said a group was going out; he replied that he wanted to go out with a cute girl he’d just met. After she realized he meant her, she said yes — much to Maxwell’s astonishment.
This week, just days before the Curiosity landing, the couple had dinner with me at a quaint Mediterranean restaurant in Pasadena’s Old Town. When they weren’t holding hands, Maxwell was putting his arm around the back of her chair. As they said goodnight for the evening, they kissed three times — and both said they planned to stay up late and sleep in to practice shifting to Mars time.
Part of the fun of working on Curiosity will be living on Mars time for about the first 90 days, Maxwell says. The days on Mars are 40 minutes longer than on Earth. That means Maxwell might start at 8 a.m. Monday, 8:40 a.m. Tuesday, 9:20 a.m. Wednesday and so on. Before long, he’ll be working overnights.
“I like to say I sleep 40 minutes more, I actually work 40 minutes [more],” he said.
Lichtenberg is the co-lead on the science planning team for the Curiosity mission. That means she helps other scientists decide what they will do with the rover every day, given how much power and time the tasks will take and how much data will be required.
On their first date about three and half years ago, Lichtenberg was sold when Maxwell told her that while healing from a martial arts-induced shoulder injury, he decided he would read all of Shakespeare’s plays. And he did.
“He really sticks to his convictions, and I really, really like that about him,” Lichtenberg says. “Being around him makes me want to be a better person.”
Maxwell insists that Lichtenberg did not move to Southern California for him. She agrees that she wanted to work at JPL anyway, but Maxwell was at least “a small bit” of the decision. These days they work down the hall from each other, and although they are on the same operations team, they are assigned to different shifts.
The affectionate, happy partners share a love of Mars and, if possible, would both like to go some day.
“If NASA set up a flight tomorrow, I’d be the first one. They wouldn’t have to bring me back,” Maxwell says.
He’d be gone in a snap, even if there were just one seat. Lichtenberg, although she likes the idea of visiting Mars, is not sure she’d just pack up and go by herself.
“I totally understand that you would,” she tells him. “It’s OK, I accept that. Totally.”
“It’s not that I like Mars better than I like you,” he assures her. They peck each other on the lips.
But there is something powerful that draws Maxwell to Mars. It’s partly the idea of being on the surface of another world. There’s also his own mortality. He believes the radiation treatments he had in his 20s will ultimately lead to a different form of cancer (he actually had a possible thyroid cancer a few years ago, which turned out to be benign). Maxwell estimates — without a hint of regret in his voice — that he has about 20 years left to live.
“I’ve only got so long anyway, you might as well make it something really good. Right? You might as well make it count,” he tells me and Lichtenberg. “And what am I going to do that’s going to be better than actually going to Mars? Go on, name three things I’m going to do that are better than that.”
“Drive a Mars rover,” says Lichtenberg.
Maxwell agrees his job is “awesome” but says going to Mars would be “even better.”
With that level of passion and spirit, Maxwell may one day indeed follow his Curiosity.