Math wiz's job is out of this world

03/14/2008 3:01 AM

09/23/2008 11:20 AM

Rocket scientist Mark Adler was the lead mission engineer for the Cassini mission to Saturn. And he's the guy who made sure the Mars rover didn't drive off a cliff.

Mark Adler

1977, Mathematics

North Miami Beach High

Q: What do you remember about the night you won your Silver Knight award?

A: When they gave me the award, they handed me the thing and told me not to grab it by the center, but I'd already broken the shield off the award the second I got it -- I guess it's typical. I tend to take things apart when I get them, it's the engineering side of me.

Q: What projects have you been involved with?

A: I work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. We do planetary exploration, space telescopes and earth observation with spacecraft. JPL is the institution that sends most of the spacecrafts beyond earth. I came to the lab around 1992 and was the mission engineer for the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn in 1997. When I was working in 2000, I came up with the Mars Exploration Rovers that were launched in 2003.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The main part of my current job is to understand the scientific investigations that we want to do. I need to take requests and technological capabilities and combine that with resources we have available. We usually only get one chance, so we have to come up with missions that are very likely to work and do new exciting science that hasn't been done before.

I'm also in charge of Team X, which is a team that gets together and does things very rapidly using tools connected to each other. We use the communication from person to person to within a week, come up with a cost estimate for a mission.

Q: You're living a little kid's dream, you know that?

A: Yep. I have the most expensive remote control toy in the universe.

Q: Have you ever wanted to tag along with something you've sent up?

A: It'd be really cool to do these things myself, but it'll probably be a very long time before we can send someone to Mars. But I can be out there on the frontier myself before humans ever get there by working through these robots.

Q: What was your role during the Mars mission?

A: I had to review plans for moving the rovers for the day, and I did sit at the terminal for the rover drivers a couple of times. We had to make sure we didn't run it off a cliff, hit a rock or break an arm.

Q: What's the most exhilarating moment your job has?

A: It's when we get the radio signal and hear back from the spacecraft when it does something really risky. The launch is one of those. It's a great relief to see a rocket not blow up on the way up. And you don't see this, but when we get the data back, too. Then, there are always big cheers. And on landing day -- that's more risky.

Q: What were the Silver Knight interviews like?

A: One of the girls who was interviewing before me had an artificial arm. She went to do her interview, and she comes back and says they asked her how her arm works. And I said, ''Gosh, that terrible, that's absolutely outrageous, how could they?'' (Pause) ``So how does it work?''

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