Mars workers juggle JPL work, home life

44130 full

KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.

Placing the nuclear-powered rover Curiosity on Mars this weekend is like raising a family. It takes total dedication, improvisation and routine, teamwork and constant adjustments.

For many staff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge the demands of science and family converge.

The adjustments begin with setting the alarm clock, says JPL group supervisor Luther Beegle. When Curiosity lands at 10:31 Sunday night, he’ll start living on Mars time.

“Your day is 39 minutes longer than everybody else’s day, which is fine for a while, until your Mars day shows up at 2:30 in the morning and then goes to 1 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Beegle described his regimen at a favorite JPL watering hole in Sierra Madre. There, he and fellow engineer Manuel de la Torre strategized about the ways they’ll adjust to three months of constant time shifting.

“For instance," de la Torre said, "I start working that day at midnight.”

That means on many mornings, he'll miss seeing his 8- and 10-year-old daughters off to school this fall. He said that on some days during the mission, he won’t see them at all. His mother flew in from Spain to help the family.

“I’ll try to plan and juggle with my wife as well as we can. She also works and that’s going to be a challenge and I don’t know, we’ll figure that out.”

Part of the lab family

When your parent or spouse, partner or sibling works at JPL — you’re likely to become part of the lab family, too. About 400 people there work on the Curiosity mission; no one's counted how many of them belong to dual-scientist families with kids.

As it turns out, the parents of half the kids at the Child Educational Center in La Cañada Flintridge work at Caltech or JPL. The daycare center maintains flexible hours to accommodate parents who work on Mars time. Its program director, Lisa Cain-Chang, said teachers there tend to focus on scientific and exploratory learning.

“Whether that probing question at four years old is why doesn’t the water stay in the sand versus later when you are an engineer or an astrophysicist and asking the more complicated questions, it's those early opportunities for them to start thinking through problems.”

The daycare is right around the corner from JPL, close enough for engineer Liz Johnson to check in on her 9-month-old daughter Kaylie and her 4-year-old son Conner Apollo during her workday breaks.

Conner loves building rocket ships in the play yard. She asks him, “Where’s it going to go?"

"To Saturn," he giggles in reply.

"And is Saturn nearby or is it far away?"

"Far away.”

Johnson and her husband work at JPL. They and other scientists and engineers often carry space photos and models of the rover home for their children to examine. But as the lab’s prepared Curiosity for its big day, she said it's been hard sometimes to get dinner on the table at home.

“Every day has been really challenging and we’ve had other families that have stepped up and said, ‘Come on over on Tuesdays.' So we’ve gone over on Tuesdays."

JPL engineers and scientists aren’t shy about expressing the anxieties and stress around the mission and their jobs. They’re trying to accomplish something that’s never been done before. Maybe because no one knows for sure how it’ll turn out, the task fascinates people beyond the lab almost as much as it does the scientists and engineers.

A craftsman's pride

“The 6-year-old me would be very proud of myself," laughed JPL spacecraft systems engineer Anthony Scodary. "I remember the first Mars rover, Sojourner. It landed when I was in sixth grade.”

He's a 26-year-old engineer now, in charge of a weather instrument and an X-ray spectrometer on Curiosity. For the moment, he’s also in charge of his brother visiting from St. Louis — and adjusting his personal schedule to Mars time. When Scodary describes his work with a craftsman’s pride, it’s easy to imagine the wide-eyed kid he used to be.

“I think that’s very exciting, and I hope that’s true because surprises and things that just totally caught you off guard are just the most fun things you can learn.”

About 3,000 people at and beyond JPL have built Curiosity to last up to two years on Mars — and to send tons more data, more precise data, than ever before ... If it lands. No one at JPL likes to say the word “crash.” It’s bad juju.

The superstition — and the hope — seem to affect everyone in the JPL family. A security guard at one entrance described the buzz at the lab this way: “Landing on the moon is like firing a golf ball from Los Angeles and getting a hole in one in New York.

"We’re going to Mars. It’s going to be awesome.”

blog comments powered by Disqus