Speaking Martian

by Christopher Martin ’98

As a sequence integration engineer (SIE) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Lever developed command sequences to navigate the robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004, with the mission of gathering information for NASA's continuing study of the red planet. Lever's command sequences dictate every move the golf cart-sized rovers make, such as traveling on the surface of Mars, capturing digital images of the landscape, and collecting soil samples for further analysis. The rovers have allowed NASA scientists to discover evidence that portions of Mars were once soaked in water.

Lever's work on this project began two years ago when his team implemented flight rules into the ground software. "We started off by developing a list of don'ts for the rovers to follow," Lever said. "Some of them are obvious, such as 'don't point the camera directly at the sun.' But they get progressively more sophisticated." According to Lever, the SIEs spent months processing these rules to develop Seq Gen tools, which allow the rovers to trigger and respond to future events. "Over time, we develop a list of rules that are built into the operating system," Lever said. "My job is to input these rules into the software." By doing this, Lever is essentially a "driver" of the machines, manipulating their movement with computer codes.

The Path to JPL

Lever took a circuitous route from his childhood in Ohio to his current work as a NASA computer scientist. Though he developed an interest in computers as a high school student, he received a Presidential appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in fall 1979, where he enrolled as a chemistry major. Lever later left the Naval Academy to study computer science at California State University, Los Angeles. While pursuing this degree, Lever worked at Cal Fed Bank first as a teller, then a junior software programmer, and finally in the technical services division. Contacts at the bank led to his eventual work for JPL. "A former Cal Fed colleague worked for JPL, and paved the way for my interview there," Lever said. "He worked on the Voyager expedition using a computer program with which I had considerable experience - some of it cutting edge - so I was able to catch on quickly and make an impact right away."

Becoming a Knowledge Broker

A decade into his work at JPL, Lever knew he needed an advanced degree if he wanted to reach his full potential in his field. "It was becoming obvious to me that there would be both direct and indirect rewards for increasing my education," Lever said. "Education enables you to become a knowledge broker. The more knowledge you have, the better your pay potential." With this in mind, Lever began exploring options for obtaining a Master of Science in Computer Science, which led him to APU in fall 1994. According to Lever, he could not have made a better choice. "When I began considering APU, I didn't realize it was a Christian school," Lever said. "I first took a look at APU because of logistics - it was on my way home from work - but I quickly discovered the school offered the type of program I wanted. The fact that it is a Christian university was a benefit that I came to appreciate greatly." According to Lever, the computer science program at APU suited his needs. "One of the aspects that appealed to me was that program was PC-based ," Lever said. "That wasn't the case with other programs I considered. The faculty showed a good deal of foresight when making the decision to build their program around PCs."

Mission to Mars

After months of planning and preparation by the team at JPL, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in January 2004. Daily, these rovers send back new details and information to increase NASA scientists' understanding of Mars. Because Mars rotates almost 40 minutes slower than Earth each day, most rover team members altered their schedules by 40 minutes each day in order to be in sync with Martian daylight hours. "My schedule was to not have a schedule," Lever said. "I was always jumping back and forth between the two spacecrafts and on multiple shifts." Even though this was the case, Lever said he loved every minute of the project. No complaints. "It has been tremendously exciting to be a part of a project like this on a day- to-day basis," Lever said. "This is definitely the most exciting project I've been a part of since the Voyager expedition." Even though his career brings him into daily contact with NASA's cutting-edge technology for the exploration of space, Lever has not lost his childlike enthusiasm for the wonders of God's creation. "I recently purchased a telescope and have become bit of an amateur astronomer," Lever said. "I just love being out there checking out the planets, looking at the galaxies, and learning the constellations. Just the thought of the vastness of space always amazes me."

Christopher Martin '98 lives in Washington, DC. christophermartin@clearchannel.com