Army of JPL interns helped Curiosity get to Mars
Manager at the laboratory's education office says, 'We keep our eyes out for superstars.'
Riley Avron, 19, a Purdue University Student and a recent intern at JPL, holds an iPhone with the app he created to control the test rover Scarecrow, pictured behind him. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / August 8, 2012)
To maneuver one of the rover's test doubles across the Mars Yard at the agency's La Cañada Flintridge headquarters, engineers had to spend several minutes typing out lines of code, their eyes locked on a laptop screen instead of the vehicle.
So they turned to Riley Avron, 19, one of 450 interns at the lab and 30 on the Mars project. Avron created a solution in the form of an iPhone app that allows rover drivers to plug in a distance and direction and then hit go.
Avron's app uses a WiFi connection to make contact with Scarecrow, one of the models for Curiosity. He coded about 8,000 lines in 10 weeks to get the app running. It has become a crucial tool for engineers and has been placed on JPL's internal app store.
“If you're sitting there fussing with your computer ... you kind of forget what you're even there for,” Avron said. “You want to watch the rover and know what's happening.”
Avron is one of the many students who come to JPL from across the country to get a jump start on a career in science, with financial support from researchers and organizations including the National Science Foundation and the Planetary Society.
“We start at the high school level,” said Adrian Ponce, a manager at JPL's education office. “And if they keep coming back, they move down the pipeline. We keep our eyes out for superstars.”
This summer was Avron's third at JPL. He started after his junior year at North Hollywood High School, and is now entering his sophomore year at Purdue University, where he studies electrical engineering.
It is common for interns to come back year after year, and Ponce said that helps in the tough competition for a permanent job. “If you make a positive impact when you're here as an intern, it definitely increases your chances of getting hired,” Ponce said.
About 70 recent interns who have finished their degrees are interested in positions at the NASA center, Ponce said. “If we can hire a reasonable fraction of that, it would be a huge success.”
Avron said he would like a shot at that someday. “Sending a rover to Mars is just the coolest thing,” he said. “So, obviously JPL has to be right up there on my list of idolized organizations.”
Two former JPL interns ended up in key positions on the Curiosity mission.
Gregory Galgana Villar was an undergrad at Cal Poly Pomona when he started an astrophysics internship in 2008. Now 25, the Long Beach native was tapped in 2010 to develop and test the operating system that landed Curiosity on Mars on Aug. 5.
“It's definitely been exciting,” he said. “Since I got on, I started to realize why people I work with are on this project. These are really, really brilliant people.”
Last Sunday, Brian Schratz was stationed at Mission Control, monitoring data being transmitted from the spacecraft. His path to JPL began in space programs at Penn State, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering. After his first summer, the 29-year-old Annapolis, Md., native said he was hooked.
“I never went anywhere else,” he said. “I'm still here and having a blast.”
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