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Red Rover

Its top speed is pathetic. It has no passing gear. But for the man at the wheel of JPL’s $2.5 billion Mars rover, what’s there to pass?

John Wright doesn’t deal with traffic, but not because he carpools from his home in Seal Beach to his job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada- Flintridge. It’s because the hot rod he’s paid to drive is one of only two operational vehicles on the planet.

The planet being Mars.

Wright is one of about 16 JPL engineers charged with driving Curiosity, the latest and greatest of the six-wheeled vehicles known generically as Mars rovers. “Technically,” he says, “we’re not called ‘rover driver.’ They named the position ‘rover planner’ so it would sound really boring and nobody would want the job.” He flashes a wicked grin. “But we’re definitely the rock stars of the program.”

He doesn’t have to convince me. I’m a sucker for rareand expensive high-performance vehicles, and Curiosity is as exotic as they get. Sure, a top speed of 1.5 inches per second—which translates into a measly 0.09 mph—may not sound like much. But Curiosity comes with a price tag north of $2.5 billion, and you can’t buy it at a local showroom. Best of all, it has gone where no man has gone before, which is something a Bugatti Veyron can’t say.

Even before I meet Wright, I’m guessing that driving a Mars rover requires a unique set of aerospace skills. But when Wright comes out to greet me in a leafy quadrangle on the JPL campus, he’s not what I expect. Instead of wearing the Dockers of a NASA lifer or the blue uniform of an Air Force officer, he’s dressed in a battered baseball cap and a loud print shirt billowing over faded blue jeans. The vibe is less rocket scientist than Jimmy Buffet parrothead. (Turns out that he and his wife, Helen, moved to Seal Beach 16 years ago because they’re avid wind surfers.) But the surprises are just beginning.

Wright, an ebullient 56, leads me across the quad to Building 264, and we ride the elevator to the sixth floor. His ID card gets us past a security door, and we enter Room 627. As I’d imagined, there’s a whiteboard full of incomprehensible notations and lots of giant computer screens twinned together to provide ever larger viewing areas. Still, what really catches my attention is what I don’t see—a joystick to control Curiosity.

I’d always thought of rovers as superduper versions of the remote-control offroad- style models available at local hobby shops. I figured JPL had a full-motion simulator accessorized with flat screens and subwoofers in a high-tech basement staffed by engineers in lab coats. And I assumed that drivers here on Earth maneuvered around in the simulator based on cool-looking video that was being beamed across the cosmos.

Apparently, I’m an idiot.

Wright patiently explains that, depending on our respective orbits, Mars is between 34 million and 250 million miles from Earth. So messages take as long as 20 minutes to get from here to there. “Even if the delay were just four minutes,” he tells me, “you’d definitely crash.”

Crashing is not an option when you’re driving on Mars. You can’t just pick up the phone and call AAA for a tow, and you can imagine the insurance paperwork. Wright is especially sensitive to this issue because he was at the virtual controls when one of the previous generation of Mars rovers, the plucky sixwheeler known as Spirit, got bogged down in sand from which it never escaped. He continues to mourn the day in 2011 it was pronounced dead after more than a year of futile rescue efforts. He still has his “Free Spirit” T-shirt.

Wright joined JPL in 1994 after a stint writing flight simulation software for Hughes Aircraft. His flight-sim experience came in handy when he worked tangentially on Sojourner, the short-lived Mars rover of 1997. When the next generation of rovers—Spirit and Opportunity— landed in 2003, he began workingas a driver. He continued to drive Opportunity after Spirit died, but when Curiosity began rolling around Mars this past August, Wright transferred to NASA’s new Mars Science Laboratory team.

Although Wright commonly is referred to as a driver, he’s more of a programmer than a chauffeur. Every night, while the solar-powered rover is asleep, scientists formulate the next day’s mission—examine this rock, for example, or gather sand from that ridge. It’s then up to the drivers to figure out how to get the rover from Point A to Point B without any drama.

Wright and his 15 colleagues “drive” Curiosity by stringing together long series of commands drawn from a library of 3,200 actions and parameters. To ensure nothing goes wrong en route, every move is simulated dozens of times at JPL by Wright and other drivers wearing 3-D goggles to optimize their understanding of the Martian topography. Drivers also are responsible for manipulating the rover’s articulated arm, which collects samples. (The death ray-style laser used to pulverize rocks is controlled by another engineering team.)

Because safety is the drivers’ paramount concern, mission planning is an exhaustive and time-consuming task. It’s not uncommon for drivers to spend an entire day writing commands to move Curiosity five yards. (To date, no single jaunt has gone more than 50 or so yards.) I ask Wright if this ultracautious approach to driving has any effect on the way he handles the 2002 Corvette in which he blasts around Earth. “If anything, I drive faster now,” he says with a smile. “It must be my form of rebellion against all the planning.”

To be honest, piloting Curiosity can be a chore, sometimes even a bore. And as Wright likes to joke about Mars: “It’s a lot of rocks and dirt.”

But after nearly a decade in the Martian driver’s seat, sitting at the virtual wheel of three rovers, he still gets a charge out of exploring the only planet that seems to be a plausible destination for human colonization.

“I know I’m never going to Mars,” he says. “So this is the closest I’ll get to being there.”

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  1. PJ Colando posted on 05/01/2013 01:17 PM
    loved the story when first read and all over again. Nice to hear about the heroes behind the scenes of our great American adventures in space
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