Alum Spotlight: Charles Naudet

Alumni Spotlight: Mission to Mars

One Alum's role in helping the NASA rover Curiosity reach Mars 

Many kids dream of exploring space  when they grow up, and Charles Naudet (Kans. ’79) was no exception. Now, as an adult, he gets to live that dream every day.

Naudet is a physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA field center in Pasadena, Calif., that constructs and runs robotic planetary spacecraft and operates the Deep Space Network.

As a group supervisor for the deep space tracking systems group, he leads a team in creating state-of-the-art techniques to accurately locate spacecraft positions. And his group’s involvement with Curiosity was one of its biggest missions ever. “I was a little worried about the ambitious, cutting-edge landing sequence,” he said. “It’s certainly up there in highlights. We’re all excited.”

Beginning its flight on Nov. 26, 2011, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Curiosity landed on its target inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The rover will explore Mars for at least two years, assessing among other things whether the crater has ever been able to sustain microbial life.

Naudet’s work began well before the launch with data analysis and updating his team’s software and hardware. During the flight, his team took regular measurements of the rover’s location, then forwarded the data to the navigation team, which decides whether to move the spacecraft. Because the landing on Gale Crater was so specific, it was critical for his team to get precisely the right measurements.

The extremely demanding requirements forced them to push their technology. They were attempting maneuvers that had never been done before, filled with a large number of sequences, automated commands and interfaces. And everything had to work precisely or the mission would fail, he said. “We had to make sure we knew where Curiosity was within 100 meters of the impact plane on Mars,” he said.

Naudet, whose grandfather was a chemist, has always been interested in science. At the University of Kansas, he gravitated toward physics and engineering. “I am here because of the Evans Scholars Program,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be at the right time and place growing up near a golf course where I could caddie.”

Working with a large number of teams on the Curiosity mission was enjoyable, he said, though there were certainly times of stress. “If anyone in particular fails, you’re responsible for the failure of a billion-dollar mission. That is very stressful,” he says. “There is a lot of responsibility.”

Knowing that half of all missions to Mars fail made this project a “nail-biter,” he said. At some point, he had to accept that the result was out of his control. After his crew viewed the landing, there were cheers all around. “I was amazed,” Naudet said. “’I thought, ‘Wow, it worked!’”

Though he has no idea what to expect — “I would be shocked if they found existing life” — he does anticipate technical issues or other challenges with Curiosity at some point. Meanwhile, his team has moved onto its next project, though the rover will remain among one of his favorite missions. “I’m really proud it succeeded,” he said.

 -First printed in the Winter 2012 WGA Evans Scholars Magazine