Engineering Alum Plays Big Role in Mars Mission

Feb. 17, 2004

The solar system's coolest field trip started in January when two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, rolled onto the surface of Mars.

The solar system's coolest field trip started in January when two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, rolled onto the surface of Mars.

They were delivered there by interplanetary valet, Chris Lewicki, who graduated from UA in 2000 with a master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Lewicki, flight director on NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Mission, was in charge of events from the time the landers bounced onto the ground until the rovers left tracks in the soil.

The toughest part was getting the rovers off the lander and onto the planet's surface. It was the most aggressive driving of the entire mission, which otherwise calls for the rovers to spend most of their time rolling along flat dirt, avoiding rocks. "So the first step off is the big one," Lewicki says. "It's like driving your car off something that is as high as your car. You have to do it right the first time."

It was Nail-Biting Time
Although it's unlikely, the mission could end if the rover has a fender bender while rolling off the lander. This was nail-biting time for Lewicki and his crew, who could visualize the rover on its back, wheels spinning frantically, like some huge, stranded beetle.

"The whole planet is watching," Lewicki says, "and you don't want to screw this up." To make sure things would go as planned, he and other NASA engineers have run more than 500 tests during the past three years to explore everything that could go wrong.

"Rolling onto the surface was an incredible thrill for everyone," he says, "particularly since we had been neck deep in this for three years and knew the devils in the details—what works, what kind of works, and what may not work at all."

Design and Testing Paid Off
In the end, good design and testing paid off, but there are always those nagging doubts when you're dealing with multi-million-dollar spacecraft from more than 100 million miles away. "You know everything is tested and reliable, but on the inside you're saying, 'How can this possibly work? We have 126 pyrotechnic devices that must all work correctly just to get the lander onto the surface. How can it all go perfectly?'"

"It was a huge moment, getting the rover down onto the surface and handing the keys over to Steve Squyres and the other scientists," said Lewicki, who also earned his bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering at UA in 1997.

At age 30, Lewicki has risen quickly through the ranks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take on the flight director's duties. "Maybe 30 is young to be a flight director, but there are lots of young people doing important things on this project," he said. "It's the young people who have survived and are able to put up with 18-hour days for weeks on end," he joked. "The older and wiser people know better."

For Lewicki, the road to Mars started in high school. "This is absolutely the kind of work I knew I wanted to do before I started at UA," he said. When he was shopping for a university, he finally settled on UA because of its strong engineering college and world-class programs in astronomy and planetary sciences. Of course, Arizona's sunny climate might also have been a factor for a kid from Gillett, Wisconsin, which lies a frigid 35 miles north of Green Bay.

UA Gave Him Chance to Work on Real Missions
"UA turned out to be an excellent place to prepare for what I wanted to do," he said. "I got a good engineering education and a chance to work on real missions in the planetary sciences department."

While at UA, Lewicki participated in NASA's Space Grant Program, Students for the Exploration & Development of Space (SEDS), the Student Satellite Program, and several research projects. His drive, work ethic and intelligence as an undergraduate led one Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) professor to speculate that, "We'll all be working for him one day."

At LPL, Lewicki wrote proposals for missions and worked on the Mars Polar Lander, Near Earth Asteroid, and Mars Observer missions.

"When I arrived at JPL, I was familiar with all this stuff, even though I may not have done some things before," he said. "I talked the talk. I could get involved. Being able to co-op and work on these programs at UA was absolutely the best education. No amount of time spent in the classroom will prepare you as much as one semester of working on real projects."

Work Outside the Classroom Led to JPL
In fact, work outside the classroom led directly to JPL. Lewicki presented a paper at the annual Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah, where he met JPL's director of systems engineering. "I mentioned that I would be interested in working for JPL sometime," Lewicki remembered. "We exchanged business cards and then six or eight months later I got a phone call out of the blue from JPL. They said they were hiring and would I like to interview."

That was five years ago, and Lewicki has been at JPL ever since, except for a short stint with a lunar rover company.

"After joining JPL, it's just been an incredible amount of hard work," he said. "On the Mars Exploration Rovers Mission it really has been a lot of work, a lot of late nights, grief at times, and stress. But every bit of it was worthwhile, given that we have two rovers on the surface of Mars now. I would do it again—but after a year or two break."

Still, he admits that the high-stress, demanding nature of the job is ultimately what draws him and other JPL engineers to the task. "We wouldn't be doing it if it weren't difficult to do," he said. "As someone said, 'If it's not impossible, we're not interested.' It's the challenge that makes it interesting. If it were routine, anyone could do it."