Max Rudolph has had Mars rovers on the brain for as long as he can remember, and this past summer, as an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he joined the team building the most advanced Mars rover ever. His role was to find bugs in the software that directs the precise movements of cameras that serve as the literal eyes of the rover and ensure that every swivel of the rover's cartoon-like "head" goes off without a hitch. For the Georgia Institute of Technology student, it was a step into a world beyond his electrical engineering major, but one to which he found he was well suited. We caught up with Rudolph between shifts in the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory, where engineers test spacecraft components in simulated otherworldly environments, to find out what an average day for him is like on the Mars 2020 mission and what brought him to JPL.
What are you working on at JPL?
I work on the Mars 2020 systems engineering testbed. I do mechanism integration and verification of flight software. Basically, I work with the remote-sensing mast on the rover, running tests to make sure everything works and try to find bugs in the software [we use to operate it].
What is the remote-sensing mast?
It's basically the head and neck of the rover. It kind of juts up off of the deck of the rover and makes it look a bit like WALL-E, the Pixar character. It has science instruments designed to measure the Martian wind and study the chemical composition of rocks and soil, as well as navigation cameras that serve as the "eyes" of the rover.
What kinds of tests are you running?
This summer, I've mostly been testing the cameras and the movements of the remote-sensing mast. So we move the remote-sensing mast around, use the cameras on the front of the mast to take pictures and see whether it can do what it's designed to do. We get instructions from the subsystem engineers, the people who designed and built different parts of the mast [such as the cameras and science instruments]. We try out the movements and commands they designed to see if they actually work when the whole system is together.
What's your average day like?
There are two types of days I have. Some days I have shifts in the testbed, and other days, I do work at my desk. When I'm in the testbed, I run tests and run through procedures with the remote-sensing mast on a replica [or engineering model] of the rover.
The rest of my time is spent preparing or wrapping up work I did when I was in the testbed. For example, before I run procedures in the testbed, I send the software commands we're going to use to test the mast through a simulation that tells me if they are valid or not. After I run a test, I note what changes I made to the procedure, and what worked and what didn't work, so I can refer to it later.
Where do you go to school, and what are you studying?
I'm going to Georgia Tech, studying electrical engineering.
What got you interested in studying electrical engineering?
I don't know how I got into it [laughs]. A lot of people ask me, "Why electrical engineering?" Not often, "Why engineering?" I think I chose electrical engineering because it's a very broad field. At school, I focus on controls and signal processing. I also do research in robotics for various professors.
But here, I'm not doing that at all. This is a systems engineering lab, and I've never done systems engineering. I am doing robotics, but it's very different from my classes. Kareem Badaruddin, who's my group supervisor, says, "We recruit a lot of electrical engineers. They usually know the skills. They have a base knowledge."
So I think I chose electrical engineering because there's a lot of variation in what you can do with your degree. You can go into software, robotics or hardware design and circuits. There are a lot of opportunities.
As far as what got me into engineering, I don't remember a time when I didn't want to do this.
What brought you to JPL?
This is one of those places that I have known about for years. I'm 20, so I probably learned about JPL in eighth grade. I was interested in working here because everything is going to space – there's nothing cooler than that. Being here is something I always thought about wanting to do, and now I have the opportunity.
Was there a particular mission or event that lead you to JPL?
It probably was Curiosity or maybe the [Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity]. I always had the rovers in the back of my mind – even before I knew that JPL built them. One day, I found my way to the JPL website, and I was like, "Oh, these spacecraft are all built here."
How do you hope you're contributing to this mission and making it a success?
I hope I find any issues that exist in the system so we can fix them before the rover goes to Mars. It's a good thing if we find an issue with the rover when we test it because now we can fix it, and that's one less thing that can fail when the rover is millions of miles away on Mars. My main goal is to learn and contribute as much as I can.
What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?
People might think it's humdrum, but I think it's really cool: I worked on a side project, helping with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which is a mechanism on the 2020 rover that will place the first helicopter on Mars. We were testing it, and I got to see the first time this thing moved. It wasn't historic like Apollo and wasn't actually landing on Mars, but seeing it – even on a replica of the rover – gave me a lot of pleasure. Like a lot of things at JPL, it was one of a kind.
What's your ultimate career goal?
I know I want to be here, because no one in the world does what JPL does. But just as important, I want to make an impact on the world.
OK, now for a fun question: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would it be?
Ideally, I'd be the one going. But I'd also really like to be part of the team that gets the spacecraft to the Moon or Mars.
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The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.