New Millennium Program


Rob Sherwood—Space Technology 6, ASE Experiment Manager

Those Who Can't, Become Hang Gliders

Rob Hangliding
Hang gliding NASA engineer,
Rob Sherwood.

If an astronaut could pilot a hang glider from a spacecraft onto the surface of the Red Planet, Rob Sherwood would volunteer in a Mars minute! While playing his guitar! 'Cause Rob always wanted to be a "space cowboy" until he learned he couldn't meet the vision requirement. So, instead Rob gets his flying fix by hang gliding almost every weekend. He also plays guitar in a jazz band. In fact, since he can't be an astronaut, he'd like to be a rock star if not a NASA engineer sending autonomous technology into space——which he is, which he does.

For, Rob is the program manager for Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Earth Science Information Systems. He is also leading the New Millennium Program's (NMP) Space Technology 6 Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment (ASE)——autonomous software that was beamed onboard NMP's in-flight Earth Observer 1 (EO1) mission in early 2004. Used with EO-1's advanced imaging instruments, ASE is designed to make decisions on its own, capturing data the craft considers important and changing the operations plan on the satellite without interaction with the ground. "This software can be used to track natural disasters that pose danger to populated areas, such as flooding and fire," Rob explains. "Then the data could be relayed to government and emergency service agencies to avoid or limit disasters before they strike."

Rob started at JPL in 1992 as a mission controller on Mars Observer, but left the program shortly after launch to work as part of the TOPEX/Poseidon spacecraft team. During those early years at JPL, Rob started and completed his Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California at Los Angeles. He has since also earned an MBA in Finance and International Business from Loyola-Marymount University, because he enjoys learning. Says Rob, "I wish I would have taken a chance on an Internet startup early in the Internet boom. I think I could have led one of these Internet companies to great success."

Travelin' Rob
Rob at Heron Island,
Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Over time Rob has also worked on Deep Space 1 and Mars Polar Lander (MPL). To date, Rob considers his work on MPL, leading the science team to be ready for landing in a short period of time, to be his biggest career achievement. He has also enjoyed being a supervisor. "It's a rewarding process——hiring new employees, guiding them, and watching them grow into important contributors for the Lab," he muses.

Although Rob relishes his work, he harbored the hope of becoming an astronaut even through college, while earning his Bachelor's degree in Aerospace Engineering at University of Colorado. When he came to work at JPL, however, his mentor introduced him to Anna Tavormina, a finalist in the astronaut selection more than once. She told him a lot about the process, including the requirements for vision. Learning he couldn't qualify was a disappointment, but he regrouped and decided to "...go the more rocket science path." Now he hurtles through space at only 11,000 feet in his glider. "More than once I have been above commercial jetliners on their way into Burbank airport," is his awe-struck comment.

Guitarist Rob
JPL's Big Band Theory on the mall. Guitarist Sherwood on the right.

Besides that amazing sport, Rob also likes to snow ski, boogieboard, and play volleyball. He is a seasoned world traveler, who most enjoys Italy for its renaissance architecture, although he also favors Australia, where he——what else, went hang gliding!

At home, Rob gets into "the swing of things" as a member of JPL's Big Band Theory. Leave it to a bunch of scientists to name their band a takeoff of the Big Bang Theory, the most widely accepted explanation to date for the birth of the universe. No birth of the blues (in the sky or otherwise), this band plays swing: Dorsey, Ellington, Goodman, and Basie. As the band's spokesperson says, "You may hear a better band, but you'll never hear a smarter one!"

Rob's one happy guy, in his career and in his life. He hopes that one day his work can really make a difference in the success of a project. Rob professes, "I aspire to be as good as the managers who led MER to such a successful mission to Mars earlier this year."

Written by Sandi Beck.

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