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Meet: Matt Wallace

Mars Pathfinder Rover Operations
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California


My Journals

My Job

I am one of two people who coordinates the operations of the Mars Pathfinder Rover. Right now, the Rover Team is spending most of its time training, but when the Pathfinder spacecraft lands on Mars on July 4, my job will start for real!

The first thing the Rover Team must do is quickly figure out that Sojourner survived the landing (Sojourner is the official name of the Rover), and that all her systems are still operating properly. Assuming they are, Sojourner must then make the dangerous journey off the Lander petal and onto the surface of Mars. This is a difficult and complex operation that requires good timing between the Lander and Rover, and a keen eye for understanding the Martian terrain using the pictures the Lander is sending back to Earth. Until we get off the Lander petal, the Rover blocks the Lander solar array, forcing the Lander to use limited battery resources.

Once Sojourner has made it off the Lander, we will send her sets of instructions about where to go, what experiments to do, and which rocks to investigate each day. This may last for many weeks.

To accomplish all of this, there are teams of Rover engineers doing different things (one group analyzes the data sent back, some engineers analyze the pictures, others prepare the instructions to be sent back up to the Rover), and I help coordinate activities among them. I also help coordinate the activities of the Rover Team with all the engineers on the spacecraft Lander Team.

My Career Journey

In high school, I got good pretty good grades in math and I enjoyed solving puzzles and problems. That made me think I might like being an engineer. But I didn't start out as a spacecraft engineer, I actually began in the Navy. I graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and became an officer in the Submarine Force. I spent about five years driving a Los Angeles Class attach sub around various oceans.

After awhile though, I decided to go back to graduate school to do more technical engineering. NASA's space program had always interested me. To me, NASA lets you take a big poke at the unknown, and if you can help solve just a little bit of it, then you played at least a bit part in everything that happens in the future. So after getting a masters degree at Caltech, I applied for and was lucky to get a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL.

Most of my time here at JPL, I have worked as a design and test engineer for both the Pathfinder spacecraft and the Rover. My area of expertise is in power systems - solar arrays, batteries, and power electronics. I was lucky enough to be one of the engineers on the spacecraft launch team when we launched Pathfinder out of Kennedy Space Center in December. It was a kick being one of the people giving the "Go for Launch," then watching the rocket lift off, knowing that the stuff you built was starting a 400-million-kilometer trip to another planet. After the launch, I came back from Kennedy and started my current job.

The best part of my job is being a part of something unique. For instance, the engineers that worked on the Rover got to sign a plaque that was placed on the bottom of the vehicle and is now on its way to Mars. I enjoy thinking about the day when someone like you will go find our rover on Mars, turn it over, and see my name.

The worst part of my job is that on almost a daily basis, I am faced with the fact that I'm really not that smart. I am constantly in awe of the people with whom I work. Many are just naturally brilliant. Some are loaded with decades of experience. But all the successful people I work with have one thing in common, they all work hard. And hard work is an incredibly powerful equalizer between the ordinary and extraordinary intellect.

My Personal Life

I grew up in Virginia and have four brothers, none of whom are engineers, all of whom are better golfers than me. I have been married for almost five years. My wife, Sandra, was born and raised in Scotland, and we go back to visit her family frequently. She works as a nurse on aggressive treatments for critically sick children at the UCLA Medical center, and she's brilliant at it. We don't have any kids. We both like to golf (I probably have achieved fanatic status). On weekends, we can frequently be found out shopping for antiques. I also run and bike when I have the chance, and recently ran my first (and perhaps last) marathon. I play the piano. We both read a lot and we try not to ever miss the TV show "Frasier."


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