His other car is on Mars

Updated 8:29 PM EDT, Mon August 6, 2012

Story highlights

Scott Maxwell, 41, is gearing up to drive Curiosity, the $2.5 billion rover now on Mars

Maxwell dreamed of exploring space and loves his job, but would rather live on Mars

Rover drivers send commands during the Martian night, programming rover for its day

(CNN) —  

On Earth, Scott Maxwell drives his red Prius without paying much attention to the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. He’s lived in the same neighborhood of Pasadena for 18 years, after all.

When he’s driving on Mars, though, every rock he encounters is a new discovery, a step toward humanity’s knowledge of the planet he hopes to visit some day.

Maxwell has the dream job of driving rovers on Mars, and he’s gearing up to take control of the biggest and most sophisticated one yet: Curiosity. He’s one of about a dozen people at NASA tasked with steering the $2.5 billion vehicle from more than 100 million miles away.

“It’s a priceless national asset that happens to be sitting on the surface of another planet,” Maxwell says of the rover, which landed Monday morning. “You better take that damn seriously.”

Maxwell loves to talk about how much he loves his job, and his effervescence is infectious, say colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home to Curiosity’s mission control.

“The thing that always impressed me about Scott was just the passion that he has for what we’re doing. He just loves being a rover driver,” says Steve Squyers, a Mars expert who’s worked closely with Maxwell. “He thinks he’s got the coolest job on the planet, and he’s right, I think.”

The names of the rovers Maxwell has driven so far – Spirit and Opportunity – speak to his upbeat attitude and thirst for immersing himself in what he enjoys doing.

Through his blog and Twitter account @marsroverdriver, Maxwell interacts with all sorts of self-professed “rover-huggers” – people who really love rovers.

Last week Maxwell tweeted, “VIP seats for opening night of @IndyShakes’s Comedy of Errors! Last chance to see a play before the baby comes Sunday.”

The baby, of course, is the SUV-sized Curiosity, which came to Mars after years of planning and preparation. It’s been more than eight months since it left Earth, and no one can be sure exactly how it will behave, says Maxwell.

Over dinner in Old Pasadena last week, Maxwell and his girlfriend, Kim Lichtenberg – a planetary scientist also working on the rover mission – playfully compared it to having a child, though neither has had children.

“We’re all going to be kind of like new parents,” Lichtenberg says.

“Watch it take its first steps,” Maxwell adds.

Landing Curiosity was such an amazing feat of engineering that NASA billed the process “seven minutes of terror.”

As a child, Scott Maxwell dreamed of visiting other planets; now he gets to drive rovers on Mars.
Elizabeth Landau/CNN
As a child, Scott Maxwell dreamed of visiting other planets; now he gets to drive rovers on Mars.

NASA’s rover Curiosity lands on Mars

Like anxious parents, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena were eager to see the rover arrive safely, and so were the reporters who flooded the NASA campus.

Mars landing: It could be crazier

Maxwell said before the landing that he had confidence in the JPL team responsible for the entry, descent and landing of the spacecraft. But if the amazing maneuver went wrong, the whole effort would have been “all for nothing” for the many people who’ve sacrificing family time and vacations to pour their hearts into it.

“That seven minutes tells you whether the last seven years of your life had a point,” Maxwell says.

Shortly after the rover’s arrival, Maxwell tweeted to NASA engineer Adam Steltzner and colleagues, “Well done, @steltzner and company! Thanks for delivering our baby safely!”

Later, Maxwell added, “Hey, I still have a job Monday. :-D.”

A voyage to break down the wall

Maxwell’s eyes widen with joy when he talks about the parts of life he thinks are “awesome”: His girlfriend. His other NASA team members. The Independent Shakespeare Company (@IndyShakes). His first lemon drop cocktail. The Cotswolds.

Something about Maxwell’s thin frame, boyish features and the way he gets giddy over esoteric things resembles Jim Parsons’ character on “The Big Bang Theory,” although Maxwell is more jovial and socially gracious than Sheldon Cooper. His arms seem almost impossibly long as they move about while he explains the rover driving process.

With a youthful complexion and hair that finishes in a short tail on the back of his neck, it’s impossible to guess Maxwell is 41. The first time he ever had lunch with Lichtenberg, she thought, “Aw man, he’s way too young for me. Way too young for me.” Later she found out she’s about six years his junior.

Lichtenberg, fair and blond, grew up with the space program close at hand: Her father is astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, a NASA payload specialist who’s flown on two shuttle missions. She has a Ph.D. in planetary spectroscopy, which deals with the interaction of matter and radiation in planetary environments.

More science news from CNN Light Years

Maxwell, on the other hand, had long assumed that a career in space was out of reach.

He was raised in an economically depressed rural area of eastern North Carolina, although his accent could just as well place him from the Midwest. His parents divorced when he was 7; after his mother moved to Florida, he spent time bouncing between the two states until college.

His father was a railroad engineer for most of his career, although he previously worked as a dean at various colleges.

Carl Sagan was Maxwell’s childhood hero. He adored watching the 13-part TV series Sagan hosted called “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” first broadcast in 1980 on PBS.

In one episode, the scientist talked about what it would be like to go to Mars. Only last year, Maxwell watched the episode again and remembered it mentioned a prototype Mars rover, which at that time seemed a futuristic idea.

“I realized in that moment that that’s where I get this sense that I’ve grown up and stepped into this fantasy world that I had when I was a kid, because I have,” he says with excited emphasis.

As a child, Maxwell loved imagining what it would be like to go to other planets. But as an older teen, he assumed he would study hard and end up in a career that seemed more common and attainable than space exploration, such as banking.

“This kind of thing always seemed to me like the kind of thing other people do,” he said. “There’s me. And there’s this big invisible glass wall. And there are people who are doing stuff like that.”

Maxwell believed he could never cross over to the other side of glass wall.

Mission Control for Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Elizabeth Landau/CNN
Mission Control for Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

It wasn’t until he got hired by NASA, after completing his master’s degree in computer science, that he realized the wall never existed.

Maxwell is living his fantasy now, but he hasn’t always had such luck. At age 20, while double-majoring in English and computer science at East Carolina University, he learned that his swollen lymph nodes were a symptom of stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer had spread in his neck and chest. He went through nine weeks of radiation treatments and has been cancer-free ever since.

Just days after the treatments ended, he left for graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Going from a state school to a prestigious engineering institution, he was floored on the first day when a professor expected everyone to have already learned the material in the first six chapters of an algorithms textbook. Maxwell had to quickly catch up on his own but says he loved learning so much at once.

And though he feared he couldn’t afford his master’s degree, he found work with the research and development arm of the U.S. Army and left school debt-free.

He had intended to go to Illinois to work toward a Ph.D., but ultimately the cancer changed his priorities.

“I was interested in going out and making tools for people to use,” he says.

JPL came to recruit at his school in fall 1993, and he remembers telling the recruiter how he was fascinated by NASA’s Voyager mission – twin spacecraft that had photographed Jupiter in unprecedented detail. His excitement apparently made an impression: He landed an interview at JPL in January 1994, and started his job that June.

Today, he lives on a quiet Pasadena street, in a cozy house that boasts some of his nerdy treasures, including an extensive collection of science fiction books. “But then my life became science fiction,” he said, explaining why he’s reading more Shakespeare and Dickens these days. As he shows off his collection, his cat Molly purrs, demanding his attention. The brown and black marbling on her otherwise white fur looks somewhat like the Martian landscape, although that’s not why he adopted her.

A glass-paneled cabinet hosts metallic “Star Wars” and Mars rover lunch boxes. There’s a vial of a substance he calls KimSim, a material his girlfriend helped create to figure out how to rescue the Spirit rover after it got stuck in a “sand trap” of alien soil on Mars in 2009.

And there are stones from the Cotswolds, an area in England he bubbles with excitement over. He says, “Wait, wait,” like a child about to demonstrate a new toy, and runs to get a book filled with images of the region. He likes the views from the ground better than the aerial shots – ground-level is more like what a rover would see, he explains.

The wider, well-manicured street perpendicular to his own, with larger houses and roses growing on front lawns, is the sort of place where he’d always wanted to live, but he says the houses are “wicked, ridiculous, crazy expensive.” Still, he loves the house he bought, with the added bonus of a lemon tree growing at its side.

It’s a bit like how he loves his job driving a vehicle on Mars, even though he dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

“Things in my life aren’t quite how I pictured them,” he said, “but they rhyme.”

At NASA, not just a sojourner

It’s been 18 years, but Maxwell still occasionally interrupts himself to say things like “I can’t get over that I work at a place called the Spacecraft Assembly Facility” when he mentions that building at JPL.

James Wang, test conductor for Curiosity, with the test model of the rover used for experiments on Earth.
Elizabeth Landau/CNN
James Wang, test conductor for Curiosity, with the test model of the rover used for experiments on Earth.

For the first couple of months there, Maxwell felt like he was in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language. He says it was fun to be clueless about the acronyms his colleagues were throwing around. “Now, I’ll use 10 acronyms in a sentence and won’t think twice about it,” he says, “but you kind of have to pick up the culture.”

He started out working on software to decode data from spacecraft. He also wrote software to help coordinate various teams working around the world to get commands to spacecraft.

In the mid-1990s, Maxwell was asked if he wanted to work on a mission called Mars Pathfinder. Maxwell had no idea what that was, and working on the team didn’t appeal to him.

What he didn’t know was that Mars Pathfinder would mark the first time NASA had sent an untethered robotic device to another planet. The 90-day mission was carried out by a rover named Sojourner.

“I just thought that was super cool, that really just captured my imagination, that you could go for a walk on another planet,” he says. “Not with your squishy, frail, human body, but you could design a robot body that would go to Mars for you.”

Although he passed up that opportunity, another chance came in 1999 when Brian Cooper, who’d driven Sojourner, approached Maxwell about developing rover-driving software for the next Mars mission.

“More or less before the words were out of his mouth – like, ‘Do you want to come work on this project?’ – I was like, “YES! Yes! I’d like to come work on this project, that’d be the coolest thing in the world, yes!”

That mission was eventually scrapped, but their efforts were put toward a different endeavor that did take off: Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Mars exploration rovers that launched in the summer of 2003.

Maxwell helped write the software that rover drivers would use for the pair, as well as for Curiosity. He would soon move from writing software to using it to command – and ultimately drive – the rovers.

His first time commanding a rover was on his 33rd birthday, in 2004. Spirit hadn’t started moving across the Mars surface yet, but Maxwell and his colleague were checking out the instruments. Maxwell told the rover to ignore the state of a switch on one of the instruments – not exactly driving, he said, “but by golly, I commanded a Mars rover that day.”

The real drama came about three weeks later when he got behind the wheel, so to speak. He remembers obsessing over what he had to do, checking everything multiple times, before sending the driving instructions.

He remembers going home afterwards: “I’m lying there, looking at the ceiling, realizing there’s a robot on another planet doing what I told it to. And that notion of, ‘I’m getting to do this. I’m not dreaming about this anymore. It’s real for me now.’

“I reach out across 100 million miles of emptiness and move something on the surface of another planet. That feeling has never left me.”

The opportunity to drive

You might think a rover driver would control the vehicle using a joystick and virtual reality interface, much like a video game. That’s not how it works. The reason for that: Signals take at least four minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (it could take up to 20 minutes, depending on where the planets are in their orbits), and then the same amount of time for confirmation data to come back.

So rover drivers don’t tell the vehicle to move forward and then wait several minutes for confirmation that it happened before sending the next command. Instead, drivers spend their days writing directions for what the rover will do the next day, sometimes even a few days if it’s a holiday weekend.

Maxwell and colleagues spend the Martian night generating a single batch of commands, which they send to the rover after the vehicle sees sunrise. Drivers work in overlapping 8- to 10-hour shifts preparing the rover for the day ahead. “It’s as if we’re e-mailing the rover its to-do list for the entire day,” Maxwell explains. And at the end of its day, the rover sends information back saying what it did. During the Martian night, the rover goes to sleep.

That might sound risky, letting a vehicle roam around on a planet for several hours without someone guiding its every move in real time. But safety checks are built in. Curiosity will know how far its wheels are moving up and down, so it will stop if it heads into something deeper or higher than the drivers had planned. In that sense, the rover is more like a boat than a plane – stopping is a fine course of action if additional direction is needed, Maxwell explains.

Curiosity can travel up to about 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) per minute, says rover driver John Wright, but in practice it will go a lot slower because the science team will want it to stop and examine its surroundings. A rover may stop and take photos, or – as will be the case with Curiosity – the scientists will want it to stop to perform chemical analyses.

Quiz: The future of Mars exploration