From Pomona to Mars
- Major: Aerospace engineering
- Class Of: 2000
Eight years of work culminating in 7 minutes of terror.
That’s how JPL engineer Martin Greco describes the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity – one of the most advanced exploration vehicles ever built.
Greco, who was a lead designer for the entry, descent and landing team, worked with a core team of about 30 engineers to plan, design, test and monitor the spacecraft’s seven-minute hurtling descent toward the Martian surface in August. They took everything into consideration, from the parachute to the batteries to the flight software.
“You only land on Mars every once in a while,” says Greco, holding a 3-inch-thick manual that barely encapsulates his share of the project. “This shows some parts of the work that so many people had to do in order to get this thing to work. But there’s a lot more work that went in in order to even start – volumes and volumes of functional design, description documents, millions of lines of code. We tried to condense it into as small of a book as we could.”
Greco came to Cal Poly Pomona in 1990 as a first-generation college student from West Covina with an interest in aerospace technology and the aircraft industry. However, he didn’t adapt well to the rigors of college and the independent learning style. A year and a half later, he dropped out of school.
“I prided myself in high school for never taking a book home because I never did any homework. I got into Cal Poly Pomona just on GPA but never knew what it takes to study something,” Greco says. “I was smart enough but also dumb enough not to know what I was doing.”
Greco worked odd jobs in sales, cleaning pools and delivering hay. After two years, he had had enough. He enrolled in community college and later returned to Cal Poly Pomona, committing to his dream of becoming an aerospace engineer. Putting in time and effort into his homework and studies made all the difference.
In 2000, Greco graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and began working as a system engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover (MER). The university’s learn-by-doing approach to education allowed him to make an immediate contribution.
“One of the things that Cal Poly Pomona is great at is teaching people to be hands-on. When I got here, people were amazed that I jumped right in,” Greco says. “From my point of view, I was thinking, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m going to do something. If it works, it works.’ As you do that, you learn how to do things. That’s one of the good things I took away from Cal Poly Pomona – to get in there, get dirty, do the work and finish something.”
For his next assignment, the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its rover Curiosity, Greco helped with the avionics. Transitioning to the entry, descent and landing team, he began constructing a timeline of Curiosity’s descent on Mars and designed half of the landing software. It’s a project he’s lived and breathed for the past eight years, though others at JPL have worked on it for at least a decade.
“The capability of the Curiosity rover is 100 times more than MER. MER is 100 times more complex than Pathfinder,” Greco says of the first wheeled vehicle to land on Mars in 1997. “With Curiosity, we got to that peak of as complex as we can make it, and it took us a long time to do that. To make it any more complex is starting to get scary.”
Manned missions to Mars might be possible in the far, far future, but the planning would be an even more monumental endeavor.
“To land people on Mars, you have to start planning really early. For example, if you want to land people on Mars in 20 years, we should start now,” Greco says. “There’s a sense of pride to say that we can do that as a species, like landing on the moon. We could have done it all robotically, but there’s something nice about seeing humanity’s footprints on a celestial body.”