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From Issue #26 September 26, 2013

Red Rover

Scott Maxwell knows his way around Mars.

By Carren Jao Twitter icon 

In a cozy bungalow on a quiet street in Pasadena, big-band music plays in the background while a couple sits on a plushy beige sofa. It’s a charming suburban tableau, but their choice of subject matter is more Ray Bradbury than Norman Rockwell.

“If they got a mission to Proxima Centauri or Europa, I’m on it,” says Scott Maxwell, a wiry, enthusiastic 42-year-old with floppy hair a smidge too long in the front but trimmed in the back.1

“Mars or Europa I would do. I’m not sure if I would do anything else,” replies Kim Lichtenberg, 37, his girlfriend.

“Come on!” Maxwell says, almost rising from his seat. “You would get into space. You’re not going to make it to Proxima Centauri; it’s four light years away, hundreds of years for a generation ship to get there. OK fine, you’re not going to make it, but you could go! You can start the journey.”

“I would want to see it before I die. I wouldn’t go.”

“I would go,” says Maxwell.

Unlike most of us, whose only exposure to space consists of late-night stargazing or visits to the local planetarium, these two know what they’re talking about. Lichtenberg is an engineer working on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, otherwise known as the Curiosity rover. And Maxwell was, until February of this year, one of the drivers of the planet-traversing robots we call rovers, and one of the few people to have driven three of them: Spirit, Opportunity, and Lichtenberg’s Curiosity.

Billions and billions of cells

In Maxwell’s last days of college at East Carolina University, his world was hit by an asteroid. “If you’re going to get cancer, I would recommend the last few months of college,” says Maxwell, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At 20, he was still covered by his father’s union insurance, which took care of the enormous cost.

He would probably recommend his specific form of cancer as well. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most curable forms of cancer, with odds of survival as high as 95 percent if it’s caught early. Despite coming out of treatment in good health, he wasn’t unscathed. Down the right side of his neck is a faint trail that marks where doctors took a lymph node out of his neck for testing.

Like a comet incidentally generating the building blocks of life upon impact, the cancer spurred a new outlook in Maxwell. Days before his prognosis, he checked a book out of the library that he had read before. “I was looking at it and thought that I might never read that book again. I was kind of depressed about that for a couple of days. Then, I realized if this is the last time I’m going to do these things, I’m going to really enjoy them.”

Rather than pursuing a Ph.D. after finishing graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Maxwell decided to switch to making tools for people to use. “My priorities had changed,” he explained.

He applied to Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), an institution that’s served as NASA’s key planetary research arm since 1958. As a child, Maxwell had been enthralled with the Voyager missions, twin spacecraft launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn. That mission was later expanded: Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 recently entered interstellar space, having traveled farther than any other object made by humans. Maxwell’s fervor for that mission and others like it earned him an on-site interview and eventually a job offer at JPL, an organization that puts a premium on enthusiasm.

Like Voyager 1, Maxwell has gone farther than he thought possible. Raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (“the limit of the known universe,” jokes Maxwell), he says, “I thought there was this glass wall between me and doing cool stuff.” It wasn’t until he was on the other side of that glass that he realized that the wall didn’t really exist. “Anybody could just do this stuff. It’s awesome.”

His “stuff” included RoSE, or the Rover Sequence Editor, written in Java and running on Linux. It is part of the software that the rovers use to navigate the Martian terrain. It was an accomplishment that eventually put him in the rover driver’s seat for the Mars Exploration Rover mission (MER), which managed Spirit and Opportunity. He later switched to Curiosity’s team.

I, robot

Romantic as it is to think that driving a rover on Mars is like driving a dune buggy in the desert, the reality is closer to playing a PC video game, but without the instant gratification.

The distance between Earth and Mars is so great that it takes a transmission between 3 and 22 minutes to travel from one planet to the other depending on their current separation. The rovers carry cameras that take many hundreds of pictures during the Martian day along with other measurements and experimental results. Curiosity carries 17 cameras, many more than its predecessors. The rovers beam back data to Earth late in the Martian afternoon, relaying them via two satellites orbiting Mars, before they shift to a low-power mode during the Martian night.2

That’s when the teams get to work; MER and MSL continue to be run as separate missions and in different locations on JPL’s campus, but work along the same principles. At the beginning of the Martian day, a team gets data and photographs from its rover.3 Dozens of scientists and engineers then gather in a conference room no larger than Maxwell’s living room, and then negotiate for what they would like the rover to do in its next daytime shift.

Maxwell mimics old conversations: “OK, there’s this really great rock in front of us; let’s use the arm on that. Or, there’s this really fascinating patch of soil over there in the distance, so let’s drive over there. Or, we should sit still because this is a beautiful spot or has scientific value.” In about an hour, the team achieves consensus — a neat feat when you consider that every member has to agree to the same plan.

Given their marching orders, the rover drivers get to work. In the current phases of both missions, typically two or more drivers coordinate to create the instructions for the wheels, arms, and other apparatuses that will be executed when the sun comes up on Mars.4

Stereoscopic photographs feed into a 3D simulation of the robot’s immediate surroundings, with a digital version of the rover plunked in. Based on the robot’s position, the terrain, and the team’s experience, they write code that details every action the rover will take, charting a safe path to travel. If a rover gets stuck, it might be impossible to get it back out, as happened with Spirit in 2009.

“The fun of the job is the things that the video game won’t tell you,” says Maxwell. He likens it to licking your finger and sticking it in the air to determine wind direction.

The simulation might say that the rover could drive in a straight line inside a crater, but Maxwell knows that he has to angle the rover to make up for any slipping that might occur because of the slope of the terrain. No machine could tell you adjustments like this. It’s a gamble every day with equipment that cost a combined $3.4 billion to get to Mars. And it has to be finished in a matter of hours.

“You know in Star Trek, Kirk will say to Scotty. ‘You’ve got to do this thing that’s never been done before in all of history.’ Scotty will be like, ‘It’s never been done before — I need 15 minutes.’ Kirk says, ‘You’ve got 10, mister.’ It’s like that.” A deadline every day.

Be the rover

Being a Mars rover driver isn’t for everybody. Maxwell says there are two things that make a good driver: putting the health of a rover above all considerations and having the ability to put oneself in the mind of the vehicle. The latter fuels the former.

As he explains this, Maxwell’s demeanor suddenly changes. He rolls his shoulders and lifts and swivels his right arm, more machine than human. “‘We’re going to take the arm, we’re going to put it there,’” he intones. “‘We’ve got to set the suspension limits because we’ll go over a rock.’ That’s when you knew they had put themselves in the mind of the rover.”

It is this almost physical bond that keeps the rovers going far beyond expectation. To hear Maxwell speak of the rovers, you would almost think he were an overprotective father shielding his only daughter from the Big Bad World. Maxwell says that being scared to drive a rover is a good sign to him. “If you weren’t, you’re not getting anywhere near my rover.”

When Spirit got stuck in soft soil five years into its supposedly 90-day mission, the team worked for over a year to rescue it. When nothing else could be done, JPL held an Irish wake for it. Just as with a lost family member, loved ones sat around and reminisced about the rover’s greatest hits. Opportunity is still going, exploring the red planet.

Spaceship Earth

These days, Maxwell’s mind isn’t a million miles away. It’s on Venice Beach, working for Google, a company that has changed the way we view our planet. Maxwell puts it this way on his Google+ profile: “A big change like this rarely has a single cause, and this one doesn’t either. But it’s a lot like when my 15-year marriage broke up: JPL and I have grown in different directions, and I’m not a good fit there any more.”

He’s still reluctant to expound further, but it’s clear he’s found a company whose informal policy, “Don’t be evil,” matches his simple but overarching philosophy: “Life’s too f------’ short to not be nice to people.”

Maxwell continues to surround himself with memories of the red planet, however. A poster of Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars, a local theater show, hangs in his living room alongside a photo mosaic of Spirit’s view from atop Husband Hill. Books about Mars populate his coffee table. Metallic Mars rover lunch boxes are displayed inside a glass-paneled cabinet in his dining room.

And his Twitter handle still proudly proclaims marsroverdriver. Clearly, being a driver wasn’t just a job; it is part of his identity. “Suppose that Gmail had been around in the 1960s and that Neil Armstrong had picked the email address Do you suppose after he came back to earth, he doesn’t deserve the email address anymore? No, he’s always the guy who walked on the moon.”

The job changed Maxwell’s perspective on Earth, bringing him face to face with the dramatic changes that can occur if a planet is pushed too far. “Before the rovers went to Mars, it was possible for a reasonable person to believe that planets were homeostatic — that they stayed the way they are. Rovers have shown that that’s not true,” says Maxwell, who drives a Prius and puts out on the curb more recycling than waste. “It’s a frozen, airless, miserable desert now. If you had a vacation home there, you would never go.”

Unless you were Maxwell.

Mars is desolate, but he would volunteer for the first one-way spacecraft to head there, unforeseen malfunctions or untested machinery be damned. What would he do on arrival? Build a new world.

“It boils down to this: we’re all going to die. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re going to die. I’m going to die,” says Maxwell. “Only a very few of us are going to get the chance to walk on the moon, walk on Mars, before we go. I’m taking that chance. I would much rather have that than 20 years in a nursing home, eating tapioca.”

Photos by Glenn Fleishman.

  1. Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to Earth, about 4.22 light years, or 24.8 trillion miles, away. Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons; it is, on average, 43.7 light minutes, or 489 million miles, away from Earth

  2. Editor Glenn Fleishman wrote in detail about Curiosity’s cameras and transmission capabilities for the Economist earlier this year. 

  3. A Martian solar day is about 24 hours and 40 minutes measured by a clock on Earth. Each rover team lived on Martian time for the first 90 days of their missions before reverting to Earth hours. This makes for complexities in scheduling. 

  4. Each rover has multiple trained drivers to allow coverage across work shifts, days of the week, and availability. Most drivers now work part-time. Opportunity has about five and the more complicated Curiosity has a dozen. 

Carren Jao writes about art, architecture and design for the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, and KCET, among others. She's fascinated with connections, hidden histories, and how the ordinary becomes remarkable thanks to someone who took time to notice.

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