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Alumni letters


February 20, 2013

Angrist’s Impact
I greatly enjoyed the profile of Josh Angrist (January/February 2013). As the evaluation of social programs gains prominence among policy makers around the world, many use methods designed by Angrist, whose contributions have influenced policies well beyond the United States. His evaluation of the voucher program PACES in Colombia, my homeland, is one of the most important pieces in the literature on the economics of education. Recently, he visited Argentina as the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association’s Impact Evaluation Network and made a clear mark on a whole new generation of economists. It is very satisfying that behind a super academic lies, as the article reveals, an exceptional human being. 

MIT news cover

Felipe Barrera-Osorio
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Dr. Jerry Lettvin
Your article on my father, professor Jerry Lettvin (January/February 2013), is largely consistent with my experiences. One small correction: Building 20 had no basement. He occupied rooms on the first floor.

Also, I can elaborate on the story of writer vs. doctor. In medical school, one of JYL’s professors suggested that he might make a better writer than doctor and proposed a challenge to him. Indicating a cadaver, the professor said, “I will show you an organ. If you name it, you will be a doctor.” Without looking, he used tongs to lift an organ out of the abdomen. JYL said, “Cerebellum.” The professor said, “You named it” and dropped the organ back in, adding, “God help your patients.”

JYL’s translation of this Morgenstern poem truly represents his feelings about the conduct of the typical scientist of his time:

After many “if”s and “but”s, emendations, notes, and cuts, they bring their theory, complete, to lay, for Science, at his feet.

But Science, sad to say it, he seldom heeds the laity-abstractedly he flips his hand, mutters “metaphysic” and bends himself again to start another curve on another chart. “Come,” says Pitts, “his line is laid; the only points he’ll miss, we’ve made.”

Jonathan Lettvin
Watertown, Massachusetts

The MIT Mars Team
Although it is not quite as thrilling as being on the flight team, MIT is well represented on other aspects of planning the Curiosity mission (“Destination: Mars,” January/February 2013). I worked for the Mars team at JPL and Houston with the astrobiology section on ground systems for the sample return mission. I also served on the technology review panel for the onboard systems for Curiosity.

Jeffrey Schantz, MArch ’85
Lakewood Ranch, Florida

Although i was glad to read about MIT alumni who worked on the Mars Curiosity rover, a number were overlooked. While it would have been impossible to include everyone involved, the article should have explicitly mentioned that this was merely a representative group of alumni embodying the MIT spirit.

In addition, the strong emphasis on the aero-astro background, and the focus on mission operations, is very misleading. It bypasses the large number of technical contributions from MIT majors in other fields (EE, for example), who had the tremendous challenge of designing and building hardware that would operate in this harsh environment, with stringent constraints of mass, power, and so on.

All the skill in navigation, landing, and “operating the joystick” would be worthless without building a reliable rover.

Eddy Shalom ’67
Valencia, California

It might be interesting to figure out how many MIT alumni total worked on the Mars Curiosity project. Among 7,000 people working on the project around the world, there were many more than 20 MIT alumni.

I know two MIT alumni at JPL not mentioned who spent six to eight years working on the trajectory of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft between Earth and Mars. As an MSL trajectory analyst for the Launch Services Program while I finished my MIT master’s thesis, I worked with Julie Kangas and Louis D’Amario, who was the MSL mission design and navigation manager.

My friend Ariane Chepko, who was a fellow grad student at the MIT Space Systems Lab, worked on the vacuum pumps within the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. A seemingly small contribution, but the instrument is lost if they fail.

Caley Burke, SM ’10
Titusville, Florida

Author Anne-Marie Corley responds:
We are happy to commend the fine work that (literally) countless MIT alumni have contributed and continue to contribute to the Curiosity project.

When we set out to cover the Curiosity landing on Mars, our goal was to give readers a sense of the atmosphere at JPL on the high-stakes landing night, and to create an online slide show to tell a few of the engineers’ stories in more detail. We knew that this would allow us to include just a fraction of the MIT alumni who worked on the rover, and we should have made clear that our account was by no means all-inclusive.

In MIT’s online alumni directory, 150 people list some form of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as their employer. Although JPL does not maintain an official list of employees’ alma maters—and engineers aren’t always aware that they’re working with fellow alumni—we identified at least 30 alumni who worked on the rover. There are undoubtedly more.

To enrich our understanding of alumni contributions, we have set up an MIT Alumni LinkedIn topic, “Who worked on the Mars Curiosity project?” We invite alumni to join the conversation.

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