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Paolo Bellutta
Picture of Paolo Bellutta
Paolo Bellutta
Machine Vision Group/Mars Exploration Rover Driver, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Paolo works on techniques to free a Mars Exploration Rover model stuck in deep sand.

Where are you from?
I grew up in Rovereto. Italy is a small town in the mountains of northern Italy -- about an hour north of Verona and about two hours from Venice. I now live in the hills near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I like mountains!

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
Besides the Apollo 11 landing, I would say it was the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers that first linked me to space exploration. It was so amazing that we could take pictures and command an arm on a probe on another planet! I had no idea that I would end up with a similar job. Mars was so far away at that time!

"Never stop learning -- this will leave
your mind open and inquisitive.
Curiosity is your best ally."
Paolo Bellutta

How did you end up working in the space program?
In 1998 I saw a job opening on an Internet mailing list and sent my resume (without much hope) to JPL. I was stunned when I got the call from JPL for a job interview. My first job at JPL was to develop vision systems for ground rovers for the Department of Defense.

Who inspired you?
My father. He inspired me to explore the world, have an open mind to new things and to never ever stop learning. He was an elementary school teacher, but when I was a kid I thought he was a carpenter since he loved woodworking. He was a good teacher. (I was one of his students for three years.) He was one of those rare teachers that made you learn without you even knowing it.

What is a Mars Exploration Rover Driver?
For quite a few years now I have spent my days driving the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on the surface of Mars. We do not use joysticks or steering wheels, and we do not drive the rovers interactively; instead we provide a list of instructions to each rover. It is not an easy job, mostly because we have to imagine all the possible negative outcomes of our (rover) actions and make sure the rovers can detect potential dangers and avoid getting into trouble.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
I was personally responsible for the rover Opportunity while driving inside Victoria Crater on Mars. This took about one full Earth year (and quite some gray hair). It was exciting to have a task of such high responsibility and to interact with people I admire.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
You never know what can help you, so learn everything you can! I often used knowledge I gathered while pursuing my hobbies, or talking to friends or reading non-work-related books.

What do you do for fun?
Archery, photography and traveling are what I like to do for fun. My favorite place to travel to is the Valley of the Gods in Utah, near Monument Valley -- absolutely stunning.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Never stop learning -- this will leave your mind open and inquisitive. Curiosity is your best ally. Never just stop and accept the facts as they have been explained to you, but find the roots of knowledge. Use your common sense and your imagination. What would you do if your life, your job, your everything depended on your next decision? Know your limits and push your limits, but also don't be ashamed to ask for help.

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Last Updated: 8 March 2013

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Last Updated: 8 Mar 2013