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Originally published Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 2:43 PM

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NASA elite pumped to drive 'monster truck on Mars'

There is a select group of engineers and programmers who have trained for years to drive the rover Curiosity on its journey over the harshness of Gale Crater. Their job is an arcane calling that is mentally grueling and demands a unique temperament and skill set. Only 20 people worldwide have qualified.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — The San Gabriel Mountains rise over a rough patch of sun-baked volcanic boulders, dusty flagstones and earthen slopes. Amid the terrain, a hulking creature of titanium, aluminum and silicon creeps through the sand, its wheels squealing like nails on a chalkboard.

NASA engineer Brian Cooper watches as the mock-up of the Mars rover inches over jagged lava rocks that would have stopped previous versions.

The "Mars Yard" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is meant to be a torture test, but this rover is crushing every piece of it beneath its six, drum-sized aluminum wheels.

"We've essentially put a monster truck on Mars," Cooper said as he guided the robot across the landscape in La Canada Flintridge with his iPhone. Of course, the real rover on Mars won't be so easy, requiring thousands of lines of programming to make its way.

Cooper is part of a select group of engineers and programmers who have trained for years to drive the rover Curiosity on its journey over the harshness of Gale Crater.

Their job is an arcane calling that is mentally grueling and demands a unique temperament and skill set. Only 20 people worldwide have qualified.

Now, with the Curiosity rover wheels-down on the Red Planet, drivers are awaiting the chance to operate NASA's biggest and baddest rover, a device twice the size of its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, and loaded with improvements, such as a nuclear battery and a laser that can vaporize rock. If all goes well, the rover will begin making tracks this week after a full system check.

Unlike the popular vision of mission controllers guiding the rover with a joystick or steering wheel, Cooper and his colleagues will spend entire days crafting computer code that must take into account every boulder and crevice that Curiosity spots with its onboard cameras.

Short of becoming an astronaut, it is the ultimate form of space exploration. To join this group, the drivers must sacrifice some of their earthly existence and live on Mars time, an ever-changing schedule that is tougher than any graveyard shift.

For months, operators will be essentially sequestered from family and friends to focus on Mars. While the mission is scheduled to run 23 months, it could last much longer.

The stress can be overwhelming. Separated from the rover by millions of miles, they know they can make no mistakes. A single slip-up can turn the ambitious scientific mission into a $2.5 billion Martian paperweight. It will feel at times like the entire world is a back-seat driver.

At 52, Cooper is the dean of the drivers, having worked on every rover sent to Mars.

He came to JPL in 1985 as an engineer working on robotic vehicle research, and focused on computer-aided remote control. He oversaw development of the driver interface. It was only natural that he was tapped to be NASA's first rover driver.

Fellow rover operators have come to the work in a similar fashion, bringing with them either knowledge of the software used to control rovers or the hardware.

The idea is to blend an assortment of talents on the team so that operators can overcome the infinite challenges Mars will throw them.

Frank Hartman, 46, moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey hoping to become a computer animator for film and video games. The fine arts trained sculptor was particularly adept at creating computer renderings of landscapes and landed a job at JPL's digital animation lab. When he heard about Cooper's work, he introduced himself and asked if he could help.

Hartman, who enjoys four-wheeling his Toyota Tacoma on this planet, saw rover driving as a way of becoming an explorer. After years of burying his mind in a computer, an alien world beckoned.

"You're seeing rocks, you're seeing sand dunes and any number of them can be hazardous to the vehicle. Your brain just starts whirling and you're asking yourself, 'Which way are we going to go today?' " he said of the work.

Most of the drivers came from other jobs inside JPL and make it known to Cooper or other key people that they want to join the team. The majority are experienced computer and robotics engineers but a few, like Hartman, bring other talents.

One even started as an anthropologist. Those who play video games have another advantage, Cooper said, since they are accustomed to interpreting a virtual world on a computer screen.

The jobs are highly coveted and applicants are vetted to ensure they can handle the stress.

"Unless you have a really good support team at home, to take care of all the chores, pay the bills, make sure your daughter gets to school and that sort of thing — unless you have that, it's going to be difficult," Cooper said.

Those who do make the cut must undergo a lengthy apprenticeship of up to two years, where they shadow a rover driver and essentially become the co-pilot.

Their workday world is a darkened room filled with glowing computer terminals. Windows are purposely blacked out so that drivers are not confused by the cycle of days on Earth, not unlike a casino in Las Vegas.

They begin the day by donning electronic 3D goggles and reviewing landscape images the rover has recorded the day before. Scientists, engineers and drivers then confer about what commands will be given to the rover, which can move at a top speed of 450 feet per hour.

With about 154 million miles separating JPL and Gale Crater, it takes about 14 minutes for radio signals to cross the void.

A script of rover movements is called "a sequence" and covers an entire day. Creating a sequence is a methodical process with its own official title, Rover Planner.

"It's as if every time you drove to the grocery store, you had to plan out the entire route the day before," Maxwell said. Plus, "you have to include anything that could go wrong — maybe there's a tree that fell over and is blocking the road, or there's a kid who's going to dart out in front of you.

"Once you do all that, you press a button and your car goes out," he said. "Only in this case, you only find out the next day whether you made it to the grocery store or not."

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