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Intelligent Machines

Out of This World

Jennifer Harris Trosper 90 has made a career of exploring Mars.

Growing up in Ohio, Jennifer Harris Trosper 90 aspired to be a concert pianist. But in high school she decided that music was a better hobby than lifetime pursuit. I decided that practicing six or seven hours a day wasnt what I wanted to do. So Trosper, who still plays the piano for fun, followed her engineer father into science. In what would be the highlight of a career for many engineers, she recently finished a stint as mission manager for the Spirit rover, one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, which found signs last March that liquid water once existed on Mars.

Its opening up an entirely new understanding of Mars, Trosper says from her office at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. After the rovers had operated successfully for 90 Martian days, NASA extended the $820 million project for at least another five months. Trosper was pleased with the extension. These rovers are like our friends and family, she says. Theres no way we couldnt try to keep them alive.Once you go through all the effort and work to get these things on Mars, it doesnt make any sense to turn them off.

Her role in this scientific triumph began when NASA approved the mission in 2000. With only three years between approval and launch, the schedule was more than tight, but Trosper managed the project adroitly. Her deputy, Mark Adler, praised her management skills. She was able to organize the people and all the tasks that we had to do and to get them done in time for launch, in time for landing, and in time for the surface mission, he says. Her key skill is her ability to get the right people focused on the right things with the right priorities to be able to quickly and efficiently resolve the problems.

Even after Spirit landed on the red planet in 2004, however, time pressures persisted. The 10- to 12-hour workday was arduous enough, but the team worked on Martian timea day on Mars is about 24 hours and 40 minutes longso the work schedule at mission control was constantly changing. Trosper would start the day by reviewing the previous days activities with Spirit rover project leaders and then discussing the plans and concerns for the coming day. Once the commands and sequences for the day were approved, she briefed a larger group of experts. To officially start the Martian workday, the team played a wake-up song (on the day Spirit first stood up on the lander platform, for example, the song was Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley) and then began sending the approved sequences to the robot. Overall, the mission team had 280 members, including more than a dozen MIT alumni.

Trosper describes the job as crisis management. If everything goes according to plan, she says, my job is easy. But its never that easy. In fact, about two and a half weeks after landing, Spirit stopped communicating with ground control for several days. Diagnosing the problem and assuring it wouldnt recur consumed Trospers time for two or three weeks before the mission got back to normal.

Her interest in Mars traces back to her senior project at MIT, which was to design a mission to the moon and Mars. And she whetted her interest in robotics with David Akin 74, SM 75, ScD 81, in the Space Systems Laboratory. Shortly after graduating, Trosper joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she nurtured her management skills while working on other Mars missions. In 1997 she served as flight director for the Mars Pathfinder Mission, which demonstrated NASAs ability to remotely pilot a robot on another planet. It also modeled the air bag system used to land the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. From 1998 to 1999, Trosper was operations development manager for NASAs Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which carried three scientific instruments designed, in part, to search for liquid water.

Spending her professional life on Martian exploration has been an extraordinary experience for Trosper. I was always interested in creation and how life started, and theres so much thats not filled in, she says. Its sort of like theres a book of the universe, and to be able to contribute a few pages to thatyou just wouldnt guess that that was going to be your lifes work. Its almost overwhelming.

Trosper has taken on yet another Mars challenge: helping carry out President Bushs plan to send people back to the moon and on to Mars. Last summer she moved to Washington, DC, where she is now working with a NASA team to help determine what kind of robotic missions are necessary to prepare for manned missions. When the first humans finally step onto the surface of Mars, Jennifer Trospers work will have been an integral part of getting them there.

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