Interview With a Driver (Part 2)…

And we’re back!

So some days ago I posted the first half of an interview with the amazing and very clever Mars-rover driver, Matt Heverly – from NASA JPL.


Matt has been, obviously, rather busy – but had a few days off and was able to complete our somewhat lengthy conversation, which I present below.

So, click on and enjoy an INTERVIEW WITH A DRIVER (PART 2)…

This interview has been broken into two parts for length and in order to annoy you…




SR: Welcome back, we’re just continuing  right along with the questions so go read the first part if you want to catch up… and now, first question for Matt the Driver:

SRWhat are the rover’s maneuvering capabilities, and what kind of things would you consider ‘risky’? Hill? Rocks?

MH:  The rover is amazingly capable.  It can drive over rocks that are 50cm tall (one wheel diameter).  It can drive up 12 deg slopes on soft sand dunes and 30 deg slopes on well consolidated soil.  We built a rover called Scarecrow (because it didn’t have a brain) that weighs on Earth what Curiosity weighs on Mars.  We drive that rover all around the Marsyard here at JPL and took it to the Mojave desert here in California where there is terrain similar to Gale Crater to test the performance of the rover. LINK TO ARTICLE HERE

SRHow far in advance are you mapping drives? Days, weeks?

MH: We typically only plan for activities that day.  You never know what the pictures that the rover is going to “email” back are going to contain.  The Scientists get super excited about all the little rocks on the side of the road and they always want to do a science.  It is our job to drive the rover where it needs to go so they can do the awesome things that they do.

SRWhat is your interest level in the science on Mars? Do you get invested in the results or are you just focused on the health and motion of the rover itself?

MH: I love the intersection of science and engineering.  I don’t claim to understand much of it, but I love learning something new every day.  I also love the enthusiasm of the science team when they talk about their results.  People spend an entire career wanting to do a science on Mars and to be able to see them accomplish that with a front row seat is very cool.

SRWhat has been your favourite moment of the mission so far? What moment are you most looking forward to?

MH: My favorite point so far was seeing the images after the rover’s first drive.

Our team worked amazingly hard for several years to ensure we could drive safely on the surface of Mars. Seeing those first images was the payoff for all the late nights and weekends we had spent in the Marsyard.

I had also been asked earlier that day to speak at the NASA press conference and it is always more fun to tell the world about success rather than explain why things didn’t quite work as expected.

SRWhat might people not know about Curiosity that you think they would be interested in? Does she have a hidden ability, a secret easter-egg, a flying spaghetti monster bumper-sticker?

MH: I can’t think of much for this one so I think I will skip it.

SRWhile Matt couldn’t think of a good one here – I will post one my own favourite easter-eggs for the rover that I know of – which is this:

That little alien-drawing is on one of the calibration targets (full image linked), and is named “Joe The Martian.” Joe is the creation of Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems – who first drew the alien at the age of 9 in 1975 after being inspired by the Viking missions. It was placed as a ‘thank-you’ from the MAHLI team to the people who have supported the mission. 


SRHas being involved in an interplanetary endeavour change your perspective on Earth and perhaps how we govern and think about our world?

MH: It isn’t very often that I take the step back and look at what we are doing. Driving a rover is really a job and there are lots of dull parts of that job. There are tons of meetings, lots of paperwork, and lots of long hours. I go home at the end of the day and hang out with my wife and kids and it just seems like another day of work.

When I think about it though, we are doing something amazing. There is pretty universal support for our project from every corner of the world. Humans explore by nature and I feel honored to be part of the team that is pushing the boundaries of our exploration.

I genuinely believe that the work that we are doing is fundamentally good. We aren’t making weapons and we aren’t keeping secrets, we are exploring. We are learning about our celestial neighborhood and we are sharing what we learn with anyone that is interested. Every image that we return from Mars is on the web within hours of it arriving on Earth. I am proud that the United States is willing to invest in what we are doing and I feel a huge sense of responsibility to take care of a national asset that every American paid for. I am even more proud that the United States is willing to share what we learn with the entire world, with no expectation of anything in return.

I am hopeful not that we find a dinosaur bone on Mars, but that we again find value in doing things that are hard and asking big questions.

SRAnd lastly… if your 13 year-old self could see you today, what would he say and what would he think about your job?

MH: If my 13 year-old self went to work with me, he would probably think my job is really boring.  No joystick…you have to wait a whole day to see if what you asked the rover to do really worked?  So many meetings!

The instant you see an image returned from the rover though, and you realize you are among the fist people on Earth to see this picture of a place on Mars where nobody has ever been before, he would probably think my job is pretty cool.



Before I close this out though, Matt sent along this email – which I’ve posted at the end of part one and here as well. I think it’s a great example of the kind of amazing people at work behind this project and all over NASA:
Hi Jason,
One other interesting thing that I was thinking about last night is why the rover drivers get all the press.  I don’t think we have the hardest job, that belongs to the Tactical Uplink Lead (TUL).
The TUL has to know everything about the rover.  They manage the science team and all of their observations.  They manage power, data volume, communication passes, etc.  But when you talk to someone who isn’t involved in the project and tell them you are a TUL they say “huh”?  When you tell someone that you are a rover driver though they have an idea of what you do…it is typically wrong since they picture us with a joystick, but I think that our job is the most relatable for the general public.
The entire team is full of amazingly talented people and I feel a bit of guilt that the rover drivers get all the press, but I also think it is important to engage the public since the rover really belongs to everyone.  All the raw images are posted on the web almost immediately after they are returned to Earth.  All the scientific data is published publicly and we are funded with tax dollars allocated to NASA (the American public funded this mission).
I think we have an obligation to let the public know what we are up to, but I want to make sure the entire team gets the props that they deserve.

So that, ladies and gentlemen and other, is what it’s like to drive a robot on Mars. Which is, I think you will agree pretty flipping amazing.

My eternal thanks to Matt and to NASA JPL and Caltech and the whole MSL team.

I will hope to do some more of these in the future – so if you can think of someone you’d like to hear more from, or parts of the mission you’d like to know more about – then drop me a line and let me know!

Thanks much and remain very, very, very curious.


2 thoughts on “Interview With a Driver (Part 2)…

  1. maude craven says:

    SR, thanks so much for posting the interview (parts I and II). how incredibly exciting and fascinating to be such a wonderful part of history! with the endless social media, NASA can do a science and the whole world and beyond can learn from it!!!

  2. PogieJoe says:

    This was indeed pretty flippin amazing…

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