As NASA's Perseverance Mars rover begins capturing samples of the red planet for the first time ever, we got exclusive access to the project's manager, and NASA's deputy director of planetary science, Matt Wallace.
1. Tell us about your personal journey to get to where you are today?
I graduated from our Naval Academy in Annapolis, and was part of the submarine fast attack fleet for many years. When I left the navy, I went to graduate school at Caltech just outside Los Angeles. I joined JPL, which is run by Caltech for NASA, in 1992 beginning with power systems on a mission to Saturn called Cassini. I then got involved in a small technology experiment call Sojourner, a Mars micro-rover. I have been building and managing Mars rover missions ever since. Perseverance is my fifth Mars rover. I created the concept, and managed the team all the way through landing – nearly a decade of work, and many thousands of team members.
2. What key lessons have you learned along the way, working in a such a hi-tech industry?
I think that one of the most fundamental aspects of your work is understanding what aspect of technology you are doing. My job for instance, is not really doing advanced R&D. It is to apply technology in an implementable, integrated high-reliable system to interplanetary spacecraft and instrumentation. In my work, it’s critical to pick the technology that’s at the right level of maturity with a path to achieve a flight-worthy state. Too often, technology with much longer horizons are chosen, and must be abandoned.
I think a second lesson I’ve learned is never be scared of new technologies. This sounds a bit odd I’m sure coming from someone that works at NASA, and perhaps counter to the above comments. But as we gain experience as managers, we often become risk averse. We fall into the worlds we know and understand too easily. Having a good educational foundation allows me to understand nearly any technical discipline at a working level, so it's really about having the courage to break away from the familiar. Many times I have found one key technology in the right slot can dramatically simplify the rest of the system development and reduce the overall mission risk.
3. Digital skills are vital for all industries today, but what are the key digital skills the space sector needs, and why are they so important?
Keeping in mind that I work in a unique aspect of the space sector, here are some of the skills our team identified as critical in the digital domain:
Embedded Software. Our systems are fused together by what we call ‘flight software’. These are the systems that run on the computers and microprocessors in the spacecraft. They have grown in the last 30 years from being an afterthought, to being the most comprehensive element of the system. Our industry is frankly still learning how to implement systems efficiently, in an integrated way with our ground systems, and to perform effective and efficient verification and validation on software systems. We require strong programming skills coupled with broad spacecraft system knowledge.
Firmware. Much of the technology we use today rely on field programable gate arrays (FPGAs) and Applied Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs). These provide the most efficient programming power density we can find, critical to systems with constant mass and volume constraints. People able to work at the hardware-software interface level are difficult to find but enormously valuable to our work and development efforts.
Operations and Ground System Tools. As we flood interstellar space (and earth orbits) with spacecraft, everybody wants and needs reliable systems to operate these spacecraft. This means strong cross-platform applicability, robust systems that are less immune to obsolescence (like those that operate in the cloud), and intuitive user interfaces that limit the experience level required by the operators.
Big Data Management. Space systems, particularly radar and imaging systems, generate enormous quantities of data. They must often be cross-correlated to other data bases and information. Managing and manipulating this data, analytics and visualization, and accessibility to diverse user communities is critical to our science missions and commercial, military, and research in our business.
Cyber Security. It's affecting everybody. The push for secure systems exists in many aspects of our industry from command and telemetry, to spacecraft and instrument data, to design and analysis tools and techniques and products, to communications, etc…. It is happening at the same time that the push for digital collaboration is also growing, making it even more challenging.
4. How important are so called meta skills - the softer human skills like creativity, problem solving collaboration etc - to NASA?
These are skills that have been de-emphasized in my opinion, to the detriment of the younger players. I often emphasize this point. Recent generations of engineers have unbelievable data access, simulation, and collaborative skills. Far far superior to any generation in the past. They can find an answer to any question rapidly, no matter where that answer is buried in the internet. They can synthesize that information in technical tools and with cohorts incredibly fast. They create powerful systems of humans that have driven our productivity through the roof.
If we have lost anything, it is in the ability of creatively attacking problems – it’s a hard skill to motivate when so much can be found online. But so many of our problems in my business are about creating first-time solutions, pushing back on the boundaries of the initial conditions you are given, challenging the status quo, connecting solutions from disperate domains, and innovating. I strongly encourage younger people to find a creative outlet, exercise it, and develop those skills before they hit the workforce. Skip your fourth programming language, and take an art class!
I think also the leadership needs of our industry are underserved. We tend to attract very intellectual, curious, and motivated people. But leaving the leadership positions to the professional ‘managers’ is losing out on an opportunity for the multiplicative effects you get when you can marry the technical and management skills together. Again, I strongly encourage younger people to find activities that develop those skills. Few people are born with them, but they can certainly be developed in my experience.
5. What do you perceive to be the key digital opportunities from the growth of the UK space sector, and what do you believe will be the key challenges in terms of skills to maximise these opportunities?
I think some of this is covered in the previous questions, and I’m far from an expert on the UK space sector. But I do think one of the key challenges in our business is to finally transition out of the silos of our field. The space business began with unique problems and tailored responses. We build whole industries around electronic parts that would survive in the space environment. We created new skill sets to deal with everything from material electrical charging in space-fields, to designing for launch vehicle dynamic environments. It was a frontier that demanded unique solutions. But that is a very expensive and limiting approach to working in the space business.
Much of what we, and the new players in commercial space, are trying to understand is how to better apply existing technology sector development in miniaturization, communications, analysis, and even supply chain approaches. The UK has always had a strong leadership role in small satellites for instance, these are questions this sector has worked on for decades. The question is how to map these into the larger aerospace organizations. For many decades, space industry technologies drove innovation in things like cell phones, now the question is how cell phone technology can drive innovation in space.
"Our systems were the first ‘self-driving car’. They make decisions on drive paths, hazard detection, target selection, science instrument placement, communication activities."
6. How much of a part does artificial intelligence play in the Mars Rover mission?
Mars Rovers get a set of instructions once per day on Mars, they then need to figure out the rest themselves before reporting back on the day’s activities. This means that autonomy is critically important in these systems. It is heavily challenged however by the uncertainty of the environment, and the ultimate need to ‘fail safe’. So the notion of artificial intelligence sometimes feels like a strong word for what we do, but none-the-less the general concept is the same.
Our systems were the first ‘self-driving car’. They make decisions on drive paths, hazard detection, target selection, science instrument placement, communication activities, and other general activity planning. But perhaps more critically, we give them extensive fault protection management skills. The software and hardware on the vehicle are extremely complex, working through all the possible vectors of a problem or hardware failure is exceedingly difficult to be design, and then thoroughly test. This may be the most advanced form of ‘artificial intelligence’ with which the vehicles are endowed.
7. What advice would you give young people wanting to pursue a career in the space sector?
I have attempted to note a number of things in the earlier answers, but to repeat and expand a bit –
• Find something you are passionate about, that is where you will excel
• Find a way to form the creative neural networks you will need to solve unique problems requiring unique solutions. Those that can will be the most valuable to their organizations.
• Know the job you are being asked to do. Is it cutting edge, blue sky, boundary bending, etc… . or is it technology application. They require different answers.
• Get a broad enough technical education, if you can, such that you are comfortable assessing and applying new technologies and problems. As you mature in your career, stay open to new technologies and approaches.
• Look for paths to bring existing solutions, technologies, etc from other sectors into the space industry. We still invent too much ourselves.
• When it’s time, give back to the people and organization that gave you a hand. You may ultimately find this to be the most rewarding aspect of your careers!