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Chris Voorhees
Picture of Chris Voorhees
Chris Voorhees
Mechanical Systems Engineer
Chris (left) and his fellow engineers inspect one of the Mars Exploration Rovers before launch.

Chris got interested in engineering in high school. During his junior year, Chris got a chance to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He worked on several projects, including the Mars Pathfinder mission and a U.S. experiment on Russia's Mars 96 mission.

He was hooked. He went back to college, completed his degree and returned to JPL as a full-time member of the technical staff.

Chris' first major engineering role was on Deep Space 2, a micro-penetrator project that piggy-backed to Mars aboard the Mars Polar Lander spacecraft. He was responsible for the mechanical design of the probe's fore body, a bullet-shaped metallic structure that was to plunge into the Martian surface at 200 meters per second. His design included a small, motorized auger, which would acquire a soil sample after impact and delivered it to a water detection experiment.

Unfortunately, the two DS-2 probes were lost along with the Mars Polar Lander upon arrival at Mars in December 1999.

"Each robot is, in fact, the culmination
of the combined hopes and dreams
of each of the people who worked on it."
Chris Voorhees

Since then, Chris has had a hand in most of the robotic missions sent to Mars, including the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) and their next-generation cousin, Curiosity. On the Curiosity mission, Chris is responsible for the development of the rover's mobility systems. He also was a part of the team that helped pick the rover's name.

What advice can you offer to young scientists or engineers?
Take every opportunity offered to you that will expose you to the type of work that scientists and engineers actually do on a daily basis. The more you understand how the process of engineering and scientific investigation develops, the better you will be able to make decisions about your future path.

Specifically, for aspiring engineers, I would make the following suggestions: Participate in the FIRST Robotics competitions, where high school students team with professional engineers in a six-week crash course in the design a and construction of a robot that will then compete against other teams in playing a game. It is, by far, the best program for exposing students to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the engineering process.

I would highly recommend that college undergraduates take part in a cooperative education program, where each student spends a semester and a summer working for a corporation or institution alongside professional engineers. It is the best way of getting practical exposure to the engineering process as well as experience working as an actual engineer. In addition, it is the best way to decide whether engineering is the right occupation for you. It delays graduation by a semester, but is totally worth it. I can safely say that my co-op directly led to the job I have now.

Over and above everything else: Find something you love to do and latch onto it. Being able to do what you love is a priceless thing.

What are your dreams for the future of exploration?
I hope to see humanity expand throughout the solar system during my lifetime, first with sophisticated robotic explorers and finally with human beings. There is something visceral about a human being doing the exploring and I believe, in the end, it is worth the cost for us to continue the push off of our planet and into the Universe around us.

What portion of these missions interest you the most?
Every single phase of the mission, from conceptual design to operations, have interesting and diverse elements that require different skills from the engineers involved. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy JPL so much is that it gives you the opportunity to see a project from cradle to grave. On the Mars Exploration Rovers, I worked on the rover's conceptual development, designed flight hardware, worked as an system assembly and integration engineer, and finally as an operations flight controller. That is the best part of the job -- the fact that the job is always changing.

What is the most fascinating thing about your job?
There's something profound about landing on another world and seeing places that have never been seen in all of human history. Being able to be a part of that process is incredibly fulfilling.

What's the most challenging part of your job?
Getting used to failure. Engineering is a most humbling pursuit, and you will spend much of your time failing to reach your goals. It is a common result to be "sent to the showers" by a failed test, design or fabrication problem, or poor results of a design review. In addition, even when your hardware development goes perfectly, robotic exploration itself is quite risky and prone to failure. Also, many projects requiring significant amounts of personal effort never get out of the proposal phase, ending instead in cancellation. In my tenure at JPL, I have been involved with 2 failures, 3 cancellations, and finally one success. Needless to say, this job is not for the faint of heart.

What's the most extraordinary experience you've had so far?
Three things: saying goodbye to the rovers as we closed the landers for the last time; touching the spacecraft while on top of the launch vehicle and seeing it launch into space the next afternoon; being in the operations area to watch the rover deploy and drive off the lander from 100,000,000 miles away. Pretty awe inspiring, especially since I saw the project in its very infancy.

When you were in elementary school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A musician. I grew up surrounded by music, with both of my parents as professional musicians and teachers. There seems to be a close connection between music and engineering, as I know several accomplished musicians on the MER team.

When did you decide you wanted to be in the space industry?
I was turned on to science and engineering in middle school and have been fascinated by space exploration since a very early age.

What excites you about Mars or about space exploration?
Seeing new things for the first time. Putting the pieces of the solar system's puzzle back together.

Describe the human side of robotic exploration.
Each robot is, in fact, the culmination of the combined hopes and dreams of each of the people who worked on it. This type of work involves the very best from each of its contributors, sometimes at great personal expense. Therefore, I like to say that there are many "souls in each great machine" that JPL develops. This is particularly true of Spirit and Opportunity. They are, in almost every sense, our children.

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Last Updated: 3 January 2013

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Last Updated: 3 Jan 2013