Mars rover driver leaves the steering wheel
Scott Maxwell has been driving rovers on Mars since 2004. He left NASA on Friday to take a job at Google.
February 12th, 2013
10:32 AM ET

Mars rover driver leaves the steering wheel

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

NASA's Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell shared all kinds of amazing things about himself when we last spoke in August. He’s a cancer survivor, for one. And his father was a railroad engineer, passionate about driving trains, while Maxwell himself has been enthusiastically controlling vehicles on Mars since 2004.

“This is the kind of thing that I, as a kid, grew up dreaming about doing, and I have been unbelievably lucky to be able to do this with part of my life,” Maxwell told me.

Given how much he loves working on Mars missions, it was shocking when he revealed on social media that he would be leaving NASA for Google.

“It’s a lot like when my 15-year marriage broke up: JPL and I have grown in different directions, and I’m not a good fit there anymore,” he wrote on Google+. His last day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was Friday.

Now wait a minute: What does driving a rover on Mars have to do with working for a massive company best known for its search engine? According to Maxwell, the jobs are not as different as you think.

Photos: Mars Curiosity rover on the Red Planet

At Google, Maxwell will be writing high-reliability software - in other words, making sure that everything runs the way it’s supposed to. For instance, when you direct your browser to google.com, you should get the Google homepage. It’s critical to keep errors rare, just like with software that controls equipment on Mars.

Maxwell helped write the software that has been used for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and for Curiosity, which landed August 6 and recently got to try out its drill on the Martian surface.

“If it fails even once you maybe don’t get your commands up to the rover that day,” he told me. “We can’t tolerate those kinds of failures. I’m proud to say that never happened, by the way, in nearly 10 years.”

From a software-development standpoint, it’s not a stretch to launch into highly reliable software that happens to be controlling machines on Earth rather than Mars.

The most fun parts of the Mars rover missions were living on Mars time, he said. For Spirit and Opportunity, the schedule was pretty regular: As the rover "wakes up" 40 minutes later every day, so do you, because a day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

The latest self-portrait of the Curiosity rover combines dozens of images taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on February 3.

But for Curiosity, the work day schedule had to be tied to when an orbiter would be flying overhead, which is less of a regular timetable.

“Spirit and Opportunity helped us prove that relaying through an orbiter has tremendous value for you,” he said. “It greatly increases the amount of data you can send back to Earth.”

Because Curiosity is a bigger, more complicated rover, the pace of the mission has been slower from Maxwell’s standpoint. The expected lifetime of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers was 90 days on Mars, so Maxwell and other mission specialists packed everything they could into that short period of time. (As it turned out, Spirit lasted more than six years and Opportunity is still going. They landed in 2004).

“I loved it when we were straining to the utmost limit and doing everything we possibly could to fit in as much stuff as possible on every given sol (solar day) of operations on Mars,” he said.

By contrast, it took 180 days on Mars for Curiosity to use its drill for the first time, marking the checkout of the last instrument on the rover. The projected lifetime of Curiosity is two years, although, like its predecessors, it could keep going much longer.

Although Maxwell misses the all-or-nothing, fast-paced nature of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers’ first months on Mars, he has also enjoyed working with more scientists with expert knowledge on a variety of subjects for the Curiosity mission.

Maxwell will miss the tactical aspect of his job: the actual process of planning a day on Mars for the rover. His day began with problems that needed to be solved. He and his colleagues solved them and sent instructions to the rover at the end.

“I’ve been privileged to be one of the few humans on Earth who does that,” he said.

Maxwell said he’ll miss the people he has worked with at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, such as the other rover drivers and science team members.

“I’m still being invited to poker nights for rover drivers, but it’s not going to be the same,” he said.

For the new job, Maxwell won’t have to take an airplane, let alone a space shuttle. His new role will be at a Google office in the Los Angeles area, where he is based. That’s good news for his romantic life because he and fellow NASA-er Kim Lichtenberg are a ridiculously cute, science-loving couple.

“I’m not sure my girlfriend would like it a whole lot if I were moving up to Mountain View permanently, and I wouldn’t want to leave her,” he said.

He’ll be following the Curiosity mission from the sidelines, but he wouldn’t totally rule out going back into the space field one day. Should technology allow it, Mars remains his destination of choice.

“If they have a rocket ship leaving tomorrow, I’m quitting Google and I’m on it,” he said.

Some of the Mars rover drivers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August. From left: Scott McCloskey, Scott Maxwell, Paolo Bellutta, John Wright, Mark Maimone and Chris Roumeliotis.

What we've done on Mars, and what's next

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Olen Starmer

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    March 2, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  2. Pay Raise!

    I bet this dude got a pretty substantial pay raise. A main reason the two were "growing in different directions". Money talks.

    February 13, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  3. cpc65

    He left the rover in a no parking zone. Better have the new guy move it or it'll be a long trip to the impound lot to get it out.

    February 13, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  4. bobk52

    BING!

    February 13, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  5. Jonquil

    If he thinks Mountain View would be a long distance challenge for their relationship, what would Mars be?

    February 12, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  6. chandler

    Bazinga.................

    February 12, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  7. Canada Dry

    bragging workaholic

    February 12, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Mir

      LOL. Jealous, unaccomplished do-nothing.

      February 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  8. TallinOK

    Funny, he doesn't look like Wolowitz ...

    February 12, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  9. Pete

    Through all the words in this article and dude's posts on his sites and responses in interviews, being that he's a human being, it probably boils down to one single character: '$'.

    February 12, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  10. CG

    After years of driving robots, he'll probably be comfortable at Google. They are a bunch of robots there. I should know. I'm a reformed robot and ex-Googler who escaped to much better pastures.

    February 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  11. Russell

    Too bad Apple didn't hire him. They could use some work in the reliability department.

    February 12, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  12. EmC

    I just love that he's holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451 while standing in what looks to be a library :)

    February 12, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • elandauCNN

      Ha! Nice catch. Just FYI - That's actually his own book collection :)

      Thanks for reading,
      Elizabeth Landau, CNN

      February 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Toadwarrior

      Good catch.

      February 12, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  13. Crow

    Interestingly they mention an irrelevant love life but not the reasons he chose to leave a good benefits/wage job for coding work at a private snoop company.

    February 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Probably for better benefits/wages.

      February 12, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  14. da

    ok good luck, guess you may as well take a job at the next world dominator, (A.K.A) google.

    February 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  15. Mike H.

    "he and fellow NASA-er Kim Lichtenberg are a ridiculously cute, science-loving couple".
    Aaaaahh... the real-life Sheldon and Amy love story.

    February 12, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  16. petrakakis

    after seeing those beautiful photos one wonders how much work amongst other things one has to dedicate
    to handling and leaving with the kind of dust on Mars

    February 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm |

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