PASADENA, Calif. — Matt Heverly, 36, started a recent workday as any young father might: up at 5:30, gulping coffee, fixing a bottle for the baby. He threw on jeans and a T-shirt and drove his two sons to day care. He stopped to get the brakes on his Toyota checked and swung by the bank.
Then he went to the office ... to drive a $2.5 billion robot on Mars.
Heverly leads a team of 16 drivers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here. Together, they are responsible for steering a six-wheeled, plutonium-powered rover called Curiosity across the red planet’s Gale Crater. Equipped with futuristic tools like a laser that can vaporize rock, the 2,000-pound robot arrived on Mars on Aug. 6, and Heverly took the wheel — or computer keyboard, actually — Aug. 22.
“Driving" a rover might be a misleading term. There is no joystick or accelerator, for a start. Heverly and his teammates tell the vehicle where to go next by entering hundreds of computer commands. Also, the driving is not done in real time: During the Martian night, the team plans where to send Curiosity next and sends instructions via radio transmission as the Mars day begins. Then the drivers go home, back to life on Earth, with all of its “don’t forget to take out the garbage" mundanity.
“You have to try not to think about what’s happening out there, which is, of course, completely impossible," Vandi Tompkins, 39, one of the drivers, said with caffeinated exuberance.
“The rover may be executing a successful drive based on your instructions," she said, “or you may have just sent a national asset over a cliff."
Or, as Heverly put it, “Last night I drove on Mars, today I mowed the lawn — it’s completely surreal."
Curiosity’s drivers are only a small group within NASA’s Mars exploration program, which investigates the Martian climate and geology and oversees an older, more rudimentary rover, Opportunity. Several thousand people work on the Mars program, but it was 30 or so Curiosity team members who struck a worldwide chord last month when NASA shared video of their reaction to the rover’s landing.
Wearing matching blue polo shirts for the occasion, the team members were seen listening for a mission controller’s confirmation of success — “We are wheels down on Mars. Oh, my God!" — and breaking out in raucous cheers and awkward high-fives. Bobak Ferdowsi, a flight director who sports a mohawk with red, white and blue streaks, now says with a wince, “We all looked like Smurfs."
Maybe a little. But it was the group’s esprit de corps that left the lasting impression. A spoof video, “We’re NASA and We Know It," recorded to the beat of the song “Sexy and I Know It," now has 2.4 million views on YouTube. Ferdowsi, now known online as Mohawk Guy, has 53,000 Twitter followers, up from a couple of hundred before the mission. (The Martian landscape is “pretty amazeballs," he wrote in a post on Aug. 23.)
People inside Building 264 here, part of the Space Flight Operations Facility, have long had a sense of humor about themselves — at one rocket launching, a group of scientists wore Spock ears.
“It’s just that before social media, nobody was really watching," Ferdowsi said. “I’m still kind of amazed at the attention. I don’t think there’s anything all that interesting about me."
In many ways, this is like any other office: gray industrial carpeting, fluorescent lighting, cramped cubicles that are mostly undecorated, unless you count empty cans of Red Bull. A small pantry has packages of dried fruit snacks. There is the occasional potluck dinner and an office softball team; at a recent game, everyone wore fake mohawks to tease Ferdowsi.
On the elevator, people say things like “Can you press seven? I’m going to Jupiter." They are not kidding. The seventh floor is home to Juno, a mission to the solar system’s largest planet. (Mars is on six and four.)
There is also a quiet cockiness.
“We definitely win the coolest job contest at cocktail parties," said John Wright, 56, a Curiosity driver who had reported to work in a baseball cap, a T-shirt and shorts.
“What do you do? Oh, you’re an investment banker? Isn’t that special," Wright continued. “I drive on Mars."
The job can be grueling. For at least the first three months of Curiosity’s multiyear exploration, the drivers will be living and working on Mars time. The Martian day, called a Sol, is longer than a day on Earth by 39 minutes and 35 seconds, which adds up quickly; morning on Earth becomes night on Mars within a couple of weeks. For the drivers, keeping this schedule is like moving two time zones to the west every three days, tossing them into a perpetual state of jet lag.
“I’m kind of so sleep-deprived at this point that I’m beyond the point where caffeine helps," Heverly said.
Heverly became a driver in an amusingly simple way. He started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory seven years ago after obtaining a master’s degree in robotics from Boston University.
“And one day they literally sent out an email that said, ‘Does anybody want to drive a rover?’" he said.
He raised his hand (“Like, duh") and, after a year of training, began commanding Opportunity. He worked with that rover for four years before switching to Curiosity.
Who decides who gets to drive and when? Drivers are scheduled by supervisors several weeks in advance, with attention paid to having some of each of people who specialize in certain rover functions: mobility, arm, turret. Up to half a dozen drivers work any one shift.
Workdays have a rigorous time structure. Curiosity beams down a report at 4 p.m. Mars time (one recent Thursday, that meant 1:44 p.m. Pacific time) of how its drive went. A group of analysts has 15 minutes to figure out if everything succeeded, a self-imposed deadline to get the planning for the next day’s drive moving quickly.
Scientists — there are about 400 working on the Mars mission in various disciplines — evaluate the data, which usually includes pictures from onboard cameras. Drivers arrive and meet with scientists to discuss where the rover should head next, perhaps 15 feet toward an indentation in the soil that looks interesting. Because they are essentially driving Curiosity blind, they initially have to move slowly, a maximum of 30 feet a day; eventually they will be able to cover about 300 feet a day.
Picking a route
Once a plan has been formulated, drivers stare at the images they have of the Martian terrain with 3-D glasses to scout for potential pitfalls (“How afraid are we of that rock?") and use computer animation to simulate a route. Then they enter hundreds of commands to execute the next day’s drive, which can require calibration of movement in gradations of centimeters. They message the rover, hoping that it understands and that no one entered an incorrect code.
Heverly, turning white, recalled “a nightmare scenario" with Opportunity. One day, scientists decided that they wanted the rover to back up. Based on the commands Heverly entered, Opportunity understood that it needed to return to a spot a few feet back.
“But instead of simply backing up, it decided to drive around the entire planet to get there," Heverly said.
Luckily, an automated safety function kicked in and stopped the rover before it could go very far.
“It was a really scary and really humbling day," Heverly said. “It gives a whole new meaning to ‘What did you do at the office today, honey?’"