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NASA official lives dream as rover rolls across Mars

Dave Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration at NASA, is framed in a spare tire from the Mars rover Curiosity. A model of the smaller, older Mars rover Opportunity is shown at right. Illustrates MARS (category a), by Steve Vogel (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, July 25, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)

Dave Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration at NASA, is framed in a spare tire from the Mars rover Curiosity. A model of the smaller, older Mars rover Opportunity is shown at right. Illustrates MARS (category a), by Steve Vogel (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, July 25, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)

As he does every morning after arriving in his small office at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Dave Lavery turned to his computer and, with a few clicks, filled the screen with photographs that had arrived during the night, beamed by satellite 154 million miles from the rover Curiosity on Mars.

“Nobody has ever seen this stuff before,” said Lavery, who is the NASA team leader for the Curiosity mission to Mars. He could barely contain the delight in his voice as he clicked through the rover’s images of the planet’s red surface.

“It’s literally exploring a planet through the remote eyes of a robot,” said Lavery.

Since landing in Gale Crater near the Martian equator last August, Curiosity has crossed an ancient streambed, drilled into the planet’s surface and analyzed rock powder. The evidence gathered by the rover has firmly established that Mars was once able to support life.

Now, Lavery is a finalist, along with NASA’s Mars exploration team, in the science and environment category of the 2013 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.

The awards, nicknamed the Sammies, are presented every September to outstanding federal workers by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

“We wouldn’t be making the phenomenal discoveries we’re making now without Dave’s contributions,” said Jonathan Rall, assistant director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The nomination honors the work of about 6,000 team members who have participated in the Curiosity program over the course of a decade, Lavery said.

For Lavery, 54, who wears wire-rim glasses and has slightly disheveled hair, the Curiosity program has been the culmination of a lifelong dream.

“I wanted to work for NASA since I was a little boy,” he said. “Like any kid in the ’60s, my heroes were Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Chuck Yeager.”

Poor eyesight ended his hopes of becoming an astronaut, but he didn’t give up his dream of space exploration.

“If I can’t fly myself, I wanted to work on the project and go there virtually,” he said.

Lavery grew up mostly in northern Virginia. After studying computer science as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech and a graduate student at George Mason University, Lavery did not hesitate when he was offered a job with a contractor working for NASA.

“I felt I should ask, ‘How much do I have to pay you to work for you?’ ” he recalled. “I wanted to get my foot in the door at NASA.”

After about five years as a contract worker, he took a technology development job with NASA, working in robotic programming, the use of artificial intelligence to operate remotely driven vehicles.

This became the basis of the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1996 and 1997, which successfully deployed the first rover on Mars: Sojourner, roughly the size of a microwave oven.

Sojourner was followed by the wildly successful missions of Spirit and Opportunity, rovers the size of small desks, which landed on Mars in 2004. Opportunity continues to transmit valuable information nearly a decade later, Lavery said.

As Curiosity’s program manager, Lavery has had to keep the project on schedule and on budget.

He is known as a demanding, by-the-book taskmaster, according to Rall. “He gets the job done,” Rall said.

Budgets and schedules can be harrowing, but the most nerve-racking time for Lavery was the Mars landing Aug. 6, 2012.

“The descent was a nail-biter,” he said.

Not all the landings have gone well, in particular the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999. “We basically made two very expensive craters in the surface of Mars,” Lavery said.

Curiosity’s landing was accomplished with the largest supersonic parachute ever built, as well as a rocket-thruster-powered descent stage that employed a “sky crane” to lower the rover to the surface, an operation never before attempted.

After long moments of “stomach clinching,” the mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., received transmissions showing a safe arrival on Mars.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, soon drove over an ancient streambed, collecting data that showed water had moved over the site for tens of thousands of years.

“That was a very big find,” Lavery said. “Water existed on the surface for long periods of time. That tells you an awful lot.”

“All of those combined together tells us this was a place that was habitable,” he said. “That was what we came to do.”

Now, Curiosity is seeking answers to other questions.

“How broad was this environment? How long did it last? All of those are still to come,” Lavery said.

Even with federal budget constraints, Lavery has no doubt that eventually, NASA will take part in a mission to put a human on Mars.

“It will happen sooner or later,” he said. “I fully believe that the first human to walk on Mars has already been born, and he or she is in school now.”

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