Rob Manning

Systems Engineer - Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Burlington Edison HS, Burlington, WA

Caltech Whitman

BS Engineering and Applied Physics (i.e. electrical engineering) BA Math-Physics

Where are you from?

I grew up as a "Navy brat," as we call it, traveling from state to state until my family and I came to land near Puget Sound in Washington state. After some years on Whidbey Island, my brothers and I attended high school in the town of Burlington in the Skagit Valley.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

Like a lot of kids of my generation, I was inspired by NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. In those times, there were still a lot of people who were struggling to grasp the idea that human-made things and humans themselves -- could visit outer space. Up until then, these ideas were in the exclusive domain of science fiction. The terms and ideas of this new frontier were as unheard of and foreign as rocket science itself.

My most intimate contact with outer space came from the magazines "National Geographic" and "Life." Although they arrived in the mail many months after the actual space-event really happened, I waited for them patiently and with keen interest. The magazines were loaded with crisp and colorful pictures, stories about rockets and the apparently super-human astronauts (they were super-human to me), as well as many images of real space travel. Later, Time Life came out with hardcover books about science that arrived monthly. Like the magazines, some had images and details about space travel (including the planets and the possibility of alien worlds). I would stare at the pages in these books, studying them for hours on rainy northwest Sunday afternoons.

As a child, I did imagine myself an inventor. I fancied that I could invent something that might make flying to outer space easier or even build a robot that would travel to other planets. I did spend many hours building little models of NASA rockets and space capsules. (Revell sold fantastic models). After gluing all the pieces together I would spend endless hours painting them. (For all the time I spent working on these models, I could have had a Ph.D. by now.)

How did you end up working in the space program?

By luck, I found myself moving to a school that had close connections with unmanned space travel. I had just transferred from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif., where I continued majoring in math/physics and electrical engineering. During this time, excitement was rampant for the Voyager flybys of the gas giants.

Before arriving at Caltech, I had read about it -- and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) -- in those very same Time Life books when I was 12. I was both daunted and thrilled by these places and their achievements. I had told myself there was no way that I was smart enough to go to Caltech or get close to what JPL did, yet here I was, at Caltech and only a few miles from JPL. (I had felt that way about Whitman too!)

While at Caltech, JPL's Voyager spacecraft began returning the fantastic images of Jupiter. Even the busy problem-solvers at Caltech would peek up from their work and smile in delight at the incoming images. It was a heady time to be an engineering student!

Later, JPL graciously offered me a part-time position as a draftsman of Galileo spacecraft schematics and I found myself inside the very images I had envied more than a decade earlier. After various positions at JPL, I began working on Mars Pathfinder (MPF). I have been working on Mars missions ever since.

Who inspired you?

Professionally, many people have influenced and inspired me -- including many of the people on this website!

Certainly, Walter Cronkite's gentle and persistently curious enthusiasm for space (as well as his guests) was a huge influence. Cronkite's style really resonated with me.

The science fiction authors: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury inspired my curiosity for stuff "out there" and for a future that could be brighter than today. Many of my teachers were also very good at encouraging me to think beyond my own limits.

What is a Systems Engineer?

I studied electrical engineering, math and physics in school, but I now call myself a "systems engineer." As a systems engineer (or "systems architect" or sometimes titled "chief engineer"), I am asked to consider how complex systems and the people that build them can be put together to meet some well-defined mission objective. I specialize in autonomous interplanetary robotics.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I have been very lucky in that I have had more than one magical moment in my career. Some of my favorites have been on the terrifying side. My first big one of course was associated with the landing of Mars Pathfinder (MPF). I was chief engineer for MPF and leader of the entry, descent and landing (EDL) team. MPF was considered to be a "under the radar" mission; MPF had a very low budget for a Mars mission, especially when compared with the only other prior mission, the amazing Viking landers.

MPF and her little payload named Sojourner were part of that now dubious and ill-defined "Faster, Better, Cheaper" mission development model. Ironically "Faster, Better, Cheaper" worked out pretty well for us, but there were at least two huge downsides: We had very little documentation to prove that everything was tested, and we had very little documentation to prove our design. We were also made up of a team of one-- there were not a lot of "eyes" on the test results. If someone made a mistake, there were only the testers, myself or one of my two EDL comrades (who worked the mechanical and dynamics analysis) to ascertain that mistake. The three of us had to keep our eyes peeled.

Fortunately, MPF was very testable and relatively simple. However, if anything bad had happened, a failure review board would have had a heyday! Fortunately, nothing bad did happen and Pathfinder made history in many ways.

As chief engineer and EDL leader, I knew Pathfinder like the back of my hand. I designed the sequence of events and worked with everyone who had to build and test the many systems that would land it on July 4, 1997. I have to admit that I felt a great load on my shoulders -- if it didn't work, I would have no one to blame but myself.

By the morning of July 4, 1997, we had prepared MPF to do all of the autonomous events that we had trained into it. All we had to do now was watch. About 15 minutes before landing we saw data flowing down that seemed to indicate that the onboard flight software we were running was the wrong version! We had loaded a newly debugged version just a month ago. Did we goof? I really did not want MPF to land with that version of the EDL software. Fortunately, we discovered that we had misinterpreted the telemetry -- the right version was indeed running.

Later that morning, my job was to narrate -- live and on camera -- the events as we observed them (the signals arrived in Spain about 11 minutes after they happened on Mars). Television cameras aimed at my face relayed my stress to viewers around the world. As the events unfolded one by one, the pace quickened and the quality of the signal that was beamed directly back to the 70-meter antenna in Madrid, Spain began to fade. Once the lander landed we were blind. Only my friends in Spain could actually see the signal on a spectrum analyzer at the station. "I have all eyes watching," Sami Asmar reported in my headset. "I see a weak signal coming in and out of the spectrum ..." Knowing the timeline, I instantly knew that there was a radio signal beaming to Earth ... I beamed too. "A signal is barely visible .... That is a good sign everybody!" I said. I was on Mars.

I was fortunate enough to repeat these experiences by developing and landing the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. In many respects, those missions were harder and far more dramatic than MPF, as we had pushed the capability envelope of the Mars Pathfinder EDL design in order to get larger rovers to the surface. (Those landing nights were stressful too.)

Finally, I was chief engineer for Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Although I did not lead the EDL team this time, I was very much involved in MSL's EDL systems and its rover Curiosity. I have to admit my sense of relief that MSL successfully landed on Mars matched or exceeded my relief in the successful landings of the other Mars rover missions. Curiosity is the crown of our achievements in exploring the surface of Mars and I have no doubt that it will inspire engineers and scientists for years to come.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

I always recommend that you should not worry about career advancement too soon. Spend a decade in your career doing real work. Build something. Use your hands. Test it. Learn from your mistakes. Put yourself out there on the edge where you will force your eyes wide open.

Also, do not be afraid to appropriately move from one organization to another in order to broaden your experiences. I did this for nearly 15 years early in my career at JPL. For a long while I thought that I was slowing my career, and in a real sense I was: my salary seemed low. However, what really happened was that I had developed a wide base of skills and personal contacts. Many people came to feel that I was one of them, and when the opportunity came to do a systems job, I discovered that I had a lot of allies willing to root for me. My background allowed my career to explode.

Be patient, be curious and be willing to learn from the best.

What do you do for fun?

After all of this stress, I need to do something that takes my mind far from engineering. I play straight-ahead jazz trumpet, I paint and I love to ski. Viva la difference!

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

I tell them to focus on the basics. Math, physics first: computer science, mechanics, statistics and random variables come to mind. But do not forget to give your mind the gift of the humanities. Understanding human culture is not just convenient, it is at the heart of what we do as engineers and scientists. We are human first, robots last.

Read More

Links to Videos, Stories, Etc.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.