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Martian Diaries

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An Engineer's Engineer
By Jeffrey Marlow

Office number 632, on the upper floor of the Mars Sciece Lab operations center is a lot like most other offices in the building, with its utilitarian furnishings, slate gray door, and black name placard. There is, however, one notable difference distinguishing 632 - a black and white photograph of a pyramidal rock on Mars, printed out on a sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper and taped to the door.

The office - and the martian rock - bear the name of Jake Matijevic, the late JPL engineer who left an indelible impression on the Mars Exploration Program through his involvement in multiple missions. He passed away on August 20th, two weeks after his latest project - the Mars Science Laboratory - arrived at Mars.

Target: Jake Matijevic Rock
This image shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic."

Matijevic was the Surface Operations Systems Chief Engineer for Curiosity, and he worked closely with Deputy Project Manager, Richard Cook. "Jake was the person who was figuring out how we were going to operate once we landed," recalls Cook. "He was thinking about what processes we needed, how the subsystems would work, and how we would do the daily operations cycle."

Most of Matijevic's martian career, however, was spent with the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the twin robots that landed in 2004. Opportunity is still roving today, and mission operators have named the current study site "Matijevic Hill". "On the Mars Exploration Rovers, Jake was one of the last men standing," says Cook. Most engineers cycle through projects, but Matijevic was with the mission from the first day until about four years after landing, he said.

To Cook, Matijevic's long term success on complicated missions was due not only to his mastery of technical details, but also his understated, calming nature. "There are a lot of big egos on some of these missions, a lot of outsized personalities," says Cook. "Jake was the guy that just got things done without the fuss. Dealing with his team of high strung personalities is probably the most impressive thing I saw him do."

Matijevic's work didn't often make the headlines, but most Mars program engineers acknowledge that the missions' phenomenal successes wouldn't have happened without him. "He was able to stich together this group of very different, strong-willed people into a cohesive group," says Cook. "He was incredibly effective."

Jake Matijevic rock presented a relatively flat face to Curiosity - a key opportunity to test the rover's "contact" instruments for the first time. The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) snapped close-up photos, and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) examined the elemental milieu.

Matijevic no doubt would have been delighted to see the rover operating so well, just as he and his team had planned. But his substantial legacy within JPL's Mars program lives on, through his fellow engineers scurrying by his office and Curiosity's lengthening set of tracks across the floor of Gale Crater.