The IEEE Fellow Behind the Curiosity Rover

A look at the work of Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories

29 August 2012

Since Curiosity landed on Mars earlier this month, the rover has been busy snapping photos, firing its laser at rocks, transmitting a human voice, and going for its first spin. That last accomplishment took place 22 August and was especially important, according to Peter C. Theisinger, the mission project manager. That’s because Curiosity moved from its landing site that day for the first time, proving it was ready to carry out its mission: to explore.

“It couldn’t be more important,” Theisinger said of the first drive at a news conference afterward. “I mean, we built a rover. So unless the rover roves, we really haven’t accomplished anything.”

Many engineers and scientists from around the world have contributed to the rover’s accomplishments, including IEEE Fellow Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, in Pasadena, Calif. Elachi and his team at JPL [shown above, Elachi fourth from the left] recently received a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama on Curiosity’s success. In my last post about the rover, I wondered what must have been going through the engineers' heads during the landing. Here's what Elachi told me about the historic moment:

"During the EDL [entry, decent, and landing] 'seven minutes' of terror, I was particularly looking for the parachute to open properly. When that happened and we saw the expected velocity drop as seen through the Doppler shift, I felt a huge relief. This was quickly followed by elation when the landing radar locked, retrorockets fired, skycrane released, and touch down.

"The Mission operation room literally exploded with cheers, hugs, jumping up and down, and tears. Everyone suddenly realized we accomplished one of, if not the most daring achievements ever undertaken in robotic space exploration. Suddenly, in less than a minute, my BlackBerry buzzed with hundreds of e-mails of congratulations from around the world expressing people's pride in what the Curiosity team has accomplished."

I had the pleasure of writing a profile of Elachi for our November 2007 issue. Although that article isn’t available on our site any longer (our archives now only date back to 2008), I’m republishing it below. Enjoy.


Photo: NASA

Charles Elachi: Exploring the Unknown

As far back as he can remember, Charles Elachi was fascinated with space. He can recall looking up at the night sky from the patio of his childhood home in Rayak, Lebanon, and wondering, Are people watching us from other planets, too? And how did life begin?

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Elachi—then 10—was intrigued “that you could make something and launch it all the way into space.” He decided to get involved in the exciting new field.

And get involved he has! In his 37-year career at NASA, he has risen to become director of the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, in Pasadena, Calif. The IEEE Fellow is also vice president of Caltech, where he teaches electrical engineering and planetary science.

In May he was honored with the Aerospace Historical Society’s International von Kármán Wings Award for his achievements in space and planetary exploration. The award is given to aerospace pioneers.

Elachi’s work at NASA has given us more than glimpses into space and a better understanding of our own planet. He has worked on dozens of flight missions and spacecraft that led to a closer look at the planets, an accurate topography of Earth, and a pair of robot rovers on Mars. That last mission led to the documentary Roving Mars, which features Elachi and the engineers who developed the rovers. It was released on DVD in July.

It was Elachi’s fascination with a different sort of stars—celebrities—that led him indirectly to NASA. But first he received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Grenoble, France, and a diplôme ingénieur from the Polytechnic Institute in Grenoble, both in 1968. He then went to graduate school at Caltech. “I loved movies and wanted to be in California, where all the celebrities were,” he explains. He earned a master’s and a doctorate in electrical sciences at Caltech in 1969 and 1971, and he also holds a master of business administration from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and a master of science in geology from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Elachi joined JPL as an engineer in 1970. He worked on radar systems and investigated how to build one to capture images of Venus. His research was later used for the JPL’s Magellan mission, which mapped the surface of the planet and revealed its structure. “It was very special when I realized my research helped make those findings possible,” he says.

As NASA geared up for its second space shuttle launch in 1981, Elachi persuaded the agency to put Earth observation radar on the spacecraft, and he was made that project’s leader. The radar transmitted images that mapped the Earth’s surface and arid subsurface, leading to a better understanding of our planet’s geologic history.

“That mission launched my career,” Elachi says. Its success led to the Shuttle Imaging Radar Series, which included a mission that mapped the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan. The radar on that spacecraft, Cassini, is still returning images today. Elachi is leading the team working on that mission today, which has already revealed the presence of hydrocarbon lakes.

Other missions included digitally mapping the topography of Earth, a task completed in only 11 days instead of the decades it used to take topographers. The data is now widely used in areas such as low altitude aircraft navigation.

In 1982 Elachi was promoted to director of JPL’s space and earth science programs, and in 2001 he landed his current role as laboratory director.

JPL began developing the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2000. The goal: to determine if the planet had ever supported life. It would also be the first time a robot moved autonomously over a range of many kilometers around the planet to study its geology. The rovers were launched in June 2003, and seven months later, Elachi and his crew were waiting breathlessly in Pasadena to learn if the first rover had landed safely. “You need to have nerves of steel to be in the business of space exploration,” he says. “Failure is always lurking around the corner.”

As the first pictures from Spirit appeared on screens in the control room, it was a moment of “pure joy,” Elachi says. “I vividly recall the images streaming in from this place on Mars that no one had ever seen before. Of all our missions, there’s nothing more difficult than landing on another planet, and Mars is a very daunting place.”

The solar-powered rovers filmed the landscape and analyzed soil samples and rocks, some of which indicate water once existed there. They are still roving around on Mars and sending data back to earth.

Meanwhile, JPL is working on several upcoming missions, including sending spacecraft back to the moon and Mars, to Jupiter’s moon Europa to search for evidence of water, and to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres to try to better understand how planets are created.

Elachi continues to search for answers to his childhood questions, by analyzing data from NASA’s missions, both new and old. “You’ll never get the answer to how life began or if there is life on other planets in a single mission,” he says.

And he continues to love the excitement of his job. “I find exploring planets fascinating,” Elachi says. “It brings out the kid in me.”

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