Interview: The driver behind NASA's Mars Rovers - part two

“Other than setting foot on Mars myself, I can't imagine anything better than driving the Mars rover,” says Ashley Stroupe, one of the 14 NASA Mars Rover Drivers.

In the second part of this series, we talk to another one of NASA's Mars Rover Drivers, Ashley Stroupe.

What in your opinion are the top three discoveries the Rovers have made?

I am not a geologist or planetary scientist, but I think the top discoveries all have to do with water.

The "blueberries" at Meridiani planum which seem to be hematite concretions that should only form in ground water, the curved layers that indicate flowing water depositing sand at Meridiani Planum, and the high concentration salt deposits at Gusev crater which indicate large amounts of ground water.

Can you briefly outline what an average work day consists of, from when you arrive in the office to when you leave?

We begin with a brief meeting where we look at the data from the day before and assess the rover's condition. Then we have a meeting with all the engineers and scientists to make the list of activities the rover is going to do. We break up into sub-teams (1 or 2 people per team) and build the individual command sequences and then get back together later to review them.

Finally, we integrate them all together and send them to the spacecraft.

My job in particular is typically one of the slower jobs because we have to identify all the hazards to the rover, and carefully sequence the commands with safety checks and also checks to make sure we get where we are going.

What has been the most exciting or memorable moment working as a Rover driver?

My most exciting and memorable time was my first drive as lead driver. It was a delicate drive near the edge of a cliff as we approached the top of husband hill. It is still very memorable because our canonical panorama from the top of the hill clearly shows these tracks.

Other memorable days are when drives didn't go as planned, but I prefer to remember the better days.

What has been one of the funniest/most humorous work moment been?

Some of the funniest moments just occur spontaneously. We're a pretty happy team, and we have good senses of humour and often times people will just randomly say funny things. Also, sometimes the images will have strange shadows or strange angles and look like other things. We found a heart shaped rock on a valentine's day once.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the work, technically?

The most challenging aspect is trying to think of everything that could go wrong so that we can try to prevent it, and catch it if it happens. Of course we can't always catch everything, but we try.

What was your technical background (skills, education, work experience) before joining NASA as a rover driver?

I have an undergraduate degree in physics, three years of graduate work in paleoanthropology, an MS in electrical engineering and an MS and PhD in robotics. (Working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA) was my first 'real job.'

What tools (software and hardware) do you use to do your job?

We use a tool that let's us move the rover around in a 3-D model of the world to see how the rover is going to interact with the terrain, and we have a tool that has the command dictionary built in so we can build sequences. We also have a tool that checks our sequences against flight rules to make sure things are sequenced the way they should be.

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In order to plot the Rover's next moves you must need to "become a robot" in a way, as an actor needs to become his or her character. Do you find that you think more like a robot in your everyday life from doing this job?

Actually we tend more often to attribute the rover's ability to think like us, than the other way around. But yes, we do have to think like a robot sometimes, which means very linear and literal thinking. The robot will always do exactly what you tell it to -- it just may not be what you thought you told the rover to do. Since a lot of what I do is working with computers, this kind of thinking is applicable in a lot of places. But outside work I occasionally find myself thinking that way - usually in humour.

Would you describe your job as a "dream tech-job"?

My job is absolutely a dream job. Other than setting foot on Mars myself, I can't imagine anything better than driving the Mars rover. Not only are we getting to work with the coolest robots in the solar system, but we're also helping to contribute to our fundamental understanding of our solar system by helping the scientists make the observations they need to make.

Read the interview with Scott Maxwell here.