W.Va. native has key role in NASA Mars robot

ZACK HAROLD
Charleston Daily Mail

CHARLESTON (AP) — Members of Liberty High School’s class of 1982 will have to forgive Steven Mikes for not attending last weekend’s 30-year class reunion.

He was too busy helping NASA put a robot on Mars.

Mikes, 48, is a senior engineer with the avionics and flight systems of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Valencia, Calif. He helped design the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars early Monday morning.

The Clarksburg native started working at JPL in October 1989, just a few months after he graduated from West Virginia University.

He earned three bachelor’s degrees at WVU — in electrical engineering, computer science and mathematics — but was unsure what kind of career he wanted to pursue. He thought about heading to graduate school until he learned about JPL.

“I applied and they gave me an interview,” he said.

The NASA suits were impressed, not so much by Mikes’ three bachelor’s degrees but by the Eagle Scout medal he earned in Clarksburg’s Boy Scout Troop Eight.

Mikes was equally impressed with NASA.

“I knew the minute I was out here that I would never leave,” he said. “We work ourselves to death, but nobody makes us. And it doesn’t feel like work.”

Mikes worked on the team that built the software for all three parts of Curiosity’s voyage: the “cruise” stage that got it to Mars, the descent stage that delivered the craft safely to the Red Planet’s surface and the rover stage that allows it to crawl around and send data back to mission control.

He later moved to the team that ran the “test bed” for Curiosity here on Earth. There are more than a few photos floating around Facebook featuring Mikes posing beside the rover, which bears some resemblance to Pixar’s fictional robot WALL-E.

Mikes said researchers at JPL tested Curiosity it every way possible before launching it into space, trying out every scenario imaginable to make sure it would land on Mars in one piece. By the time it launched into space last November, Mikes said he was feeling good about the rover’s chances.

“I was really confident it would work,” he said.

Still, tensions climbed as the rover entered Mars’ orbit. The landing system was designed to drop the Toyota Prius-sized robot to the planet’s surface with no more than a soft thud, but would it work? Mikes has worked on nine spacecrafts at JPL, but Curiosity was his first project designed to land on another planet surface.

“You’re on a collision course to the planet. If it doesn’t work, you’re dead,” he said.

The seven-minute landing went off without a hitch. Media outlets worldwide showed videos of jubilant geeks at mission control, hollering and jumping around in their light-blue polo shirts.

Mikes said the mood in JPL’s test bays was similarly triumphant.

“People were crying, some people were laughing, some people were dancing,” he said. “To see that telemetry come down off Odyssey and land without a hitch … it was beautiful. All those late night hours paid off when you saw it land without a hitch.

“It’s hard work but it’s really rewarding when you see that.”

Now, Mikes is working with a team that tests changes to Curiosity’s software. Anytime an engineer has to fix a problem with the rover’s code, Mikes and his team make sure the problem is truly fixed.

After 23 years at JPL, Mikes said he still loves his work. He’s as fascinated by computers as he was back at WVU, when he and two classmates coded an operating system from scratch.

“You can make (computers) do anything, if you’ve got the money and the time. You can do anything with them,” he said.

“I really love what I do. To be able to say I’ve had things I’ve held in my hands on Mars … not many people can say that.”

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