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Meet: Rob Manning

Flight System Chief Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California


Who I Am

For the past three-and-a-half years, I have been chief engineer of the Mars Pathfinder flight system. The flight system that I am technically responsible for is everything about Mars Pathfinder that "flies" except for the Sojourner Rover and the other science instruments like the camera.

As chief engineer, I am responsible for the design, development and test of all aspects of the spacecraft. As an additional duty, I am also lead system engineer for the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission.

As chief engineer, you might think that I need to understand everything about Pathfinder. When I was offered this job nearly four years ago, I naively thought that I could! It took me about three months to realize that it is impossible for any one person to know all there is to know about complex spacecraft. I like to joke that I know virtually nothing about practically everything! The best any chief engineer can do is help be the "glue" that binds the overall engineering development process together. It takes many good people working as a team to achieve what we have (so far). I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work closely with a talented team of engineers and scientists from nearly all of the engineering professions spread all over the country.

My Journey

I spent most of my childhood living a Huckleberry Finn's lifestyle in the islands and farmlands of northwest Washington. As a kid on those long wet and windy winter nights, I read in the newspapers and "National Geographic" magazine about the amazing space probes and astronauts that the US was sending to the Moon. It was all part of the whirlwind space race that had me transfixed on everything about outer space. I followed the astronauts' adventures on TV with the rest of the nation and built plastic models of the latest spaceships as soon as they came out; starting with Mercury, and then on to the Gemini and the Apollo missions. It was a heady time to be a kid! The "future" was everywhere.

The funny part was that we knew so little about outer space: the Moon was clearly visible in our mind's eye, but Mars was this blotchy red thing (that probably had canals!), we had no idea what Venus was all about, and the only thing classroom textbooks said about the outer planets was that they were different colors, some were very big, and one looks like a coffee mug with two handles! Not much to get excited about when there were astronauts - real people - actually flying to the Moon!

It wasn't until the Mariner series of spacecraft that the other planets took hold of my imagination. One day the front page of our local paper showed real photos taken by a space robot flying past Mars! Now THAT was something interesting. From then on, my attention turned to other worlds.

My parents purchased a collection of Time/Life science books that changed my life. These picture books brought the reality of what science is and what scientists do right into my living room (I didn't see a difference between engineering and science - it all looked intriguingly foreign to me). I saw pictures of places like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where people actually invented these space probes. From then on, I wanted to do that.

My interest in math and science in the classroom didn't exactly explode. I was a mediocre student. But my curiosity in space exploration forced me to want to learn more. My teachers said that I needed to do well in school before I could do anything technical. On one of the pages of the Time/Life book "The Scientist," was a picture of the Caltech graduating class. It said that these people were among the best and would lead the technological revolution. I wondered if I could be like them.

I spent my high school years in the farming town of Burlington, WA. It was a great place to learn the ropes of rural life: machine shop, auto shop, farm shop, small gas engines shop, plastic shop, welding shop and lots of "ag" classes. We learned how to work hard after school and in the summertime on the farms and in farming industries. But we did not learn how to study. I knew that would have to change if I wanted to be an engineer. So it was with much trepidation that I applied for college.

I didn't believe that I could really become an engineer until I got to Whitman College. This wonderful place is a small liberal arts college nestled inside a comfortable corner of Walla Walla in the far southeast of Washington. They offered a "3-2" program where I could get two degrees (BA and BS) in five years of study - three at Whitman and two at Columbia or ... Caltech! But I needed to pull a decent GPA; I had barely made it into Whitman, let alone Caltech!

There is nothing like a good dose of fear to get the ball rolling! I studied hard. Very hard. I literally lived in the college library under a portrait of the great Indian Chief Joseph. He was very stern and seemed to encourage me to not lose sight of my goals. I didn't. Whitman was a fantastic experience and a few short years later, I transferred down to Caltech.

Two years later, JPL's Voyager spacecraft began returning fantastic images of Jupiter and her entourage. Even the busy problem-solvers at Caltech peeked up from their work and smiled in delight. It was a heady time to be an engineering student! Later that year JPL graciously offered me a part-time position as a draftsman of the Galileo spacecraft schematics and I found myself inside the very picture I had envied a more than a decade earlier - I had finally graduated!

My first decade at JPL revolved around spacecraft computers and advanced computer architectures. It was fascinating work, but technologically a long way from computers as intelligent as "HAL" from "2001: A Space Odyssey." I went on to be the lead engineer for the computers used on the Cassini spacecraft. Later I found that designing "fault protection" would be a lot of fun and spent two interesting years thinking about how to make Cassini diagnose failures and repair itself during its long lonely voyage to Saturn.

Then Mars Pathfinder came along.


Likes/Dislikes About Career

My friend Richard Cook says the best things about his job are the technical challenges of building a spacecraft and sending it to Mars and the great team of people we have working on Mars Pathfinder. I couldn't agree more. Something like Pathfinder cannot be achieved without teamwork and we have been lucky to have many tireless and selfless people making this work. This once-in-a-lifetime experience will forever be etched into my memories. It will be the fine people that I will remember. The other best part of my job is the learning. For someone as curious about how things work as I am, this is a dream job. I get to learn about Mars geology, mechanical engineering, how parachutes and airbags really work, and much much more. My job is never boring. The one part of my job that I like the least is the time it takes from my wife and my personal life. The other part is always feeling like I need to do more at work. It is a frustrating combination.

Personal Information

I live in Pasadena, Calif. with my wonderful wife, Dominique, and our two goofy pooches, Scooter and Izzy. We spend our free time working on our house, laughing with friends and trying to find time for each other. When we find the time, we both love to ski. I also manage to find some free time to play jazz (bebop) trumpet with local jazz groups.