I met a man employed on Mars. Not just watching it from a distance, but doing things on its surface. Paolo Bellutta is his name and he drives Nasa’s Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers – the only working cars in space. As he proudly tells me, “I’m one of the few people who has an interplanetary driver’s licence.” For further clarification he’s also wearing a bright red jacket with “Mars Rover Driver” emblazoned across the back.
Let me back up a bit. Despite the 30-year old Lou Reed hit Satellite of Love predicting that Mars would soon “be filled with parking cars”, so far only four have made it to the planet. Bellutta has driven all but the first, the tiny Sojourner rover landed there by Nasa’s Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 that lasted three months before losing contact.
He’s a leading figure in both the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission – which landed Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 – and in the most recent Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which last year used a fiendishly complicated and previously untried “sky crane” to lower the nearly one tonne nuclear-powered, family-car-sized Curiosity almost exactly on target in the Gale Crater, a site he’d helped select. On the day of the landing last August, Bellutta admits he was in pieces, although he’s adamant he wasn’t worried that Curiosity might be too. The team responsible for getting the rover down to the surface in one working piece had his complete trust: “they’re really, really smart people,” he says with a grin, “so I bet my work on them.” Nevertheless for all the work he’d done in advance, and all that he was preparing to do on Mars, the descent itself was out of his hands. He claims to have been so nervous that despite having brought in his camera specially he failed to take a single picture.
The landing worked out almost exactly as planned. Things on Mars often don’t. Even though it happened nearly four years ago, Bellutta is still visibly upset and seems almost lost for words trying to describe how Spirit became stuck in soft soil and why they couldn’t find any way to get the stricken rover back on track. His team spent months attempting to simulate the conditions – not easy when you’ve got to mimic the low gravity as well as the terrain – and went through every combination of forward and backwards motion for the wheels, even using them as paddles to attempt to swim Spirit out (something which proved surprisingly effective, but came too late to save it/her). “We tried everything”, he says. But what, I ask, if you’d known what you know now and done things in a different sequence? “Perhaps,” Bellutta says wistfully. You can tell it’s the perhaps which still needles him.
The MER and MSL missions have more than a dozen drivers between them, but Paolo is the one with the most space miles clocked up who is still part of the team. “Google pays better,” he says when asked why some of the others have left. There may also be another factor. One which at first seems hard to fathom for a job that seems at the very edge of human capabilities, and right on the border between reality and science fiction. “Even though you are working on Mars,” Bellutta confesses, “it can get a little boring.”