Saturday, August 25, 2012

Do you need a drivers license to move the rover Curiosity?

Remember this?...

Howard Wolowitz [The Big Bang Theory] gets the Mars Rover stuck and hides the evidence that he was responsible. Because of being stuck where it was, the rover discovers evidence of life on Mars, but Howard can't admit that it was him who placed the rover there.

Frank Hartman

"Pitman native makes his mark behind the wheel of Mars rover 'Curiosity'"


Michelle Caffrey

August 25th, 2012

Washington Township Times

Frank Hartman has gone from Pitman to Mars, albeit with quite a few stops in-between. Hartman, a Gloucester County native who was raised in Pitman and currently lives in California, is one of the drivers of the “Curiosity” Mars rover, which touched down in a crater on the Red Planet on Aug. 5.

Hartman and his fellow drivers are currently testing out the car-sized rover’s equipment and maneuvering abilities before starting it’s scientific tests and long-term treks to Martian mountains. For the next two years, they’ll control the rover from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles, Calif., quite a ways away from Holly Ave. and the Broadway Theatre in Hartman’s hometown.

And his parents, who still live in Pitman. Hartman said they were excited to hear their son discuss his virtual journey to Mars on a recent broadcast of WHYY’s Newsworks on NPR.

“I’ve gotten a lot of radio interview requests from all over the country now, but I tend to direct them to my fellow rover drivers,” said Hartman, with a genuine humility. “The nice thing about the NPR story for me was that my mom and her friends heard it.”

While Hartman also helped drive the previous Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit, he said that Curiosity seems to be piquing the public’s, well, curiosity, more than ever.

“It’s not entirely new for my parents, but this one seems to be getting a lot more attention,” Hartman said.

He chalks that rover fervor up to the simple fact that in this 24-hour news cycle, immersed in social media, people talk. And now, they’re talking about Mars.

“There’s so many more ways for people to connect and share their excitement,” Hartman said. “There’s a lot of real interest in new media this time around. A lot of young people are super fired up.”

One of his favorite embodiments of that excitement is a YouTube video parodying the Mars rover and its mission.

“These guys took the time to put this together ... and they got their facts right,” Hartman said, adding that the guys who created it actually got a chance to visit the JPL facility on Thursday.

“It goes both ways. There’s a real community out there. That kind of helps people get fired up,” he said.

Getting Hartman fired up for the job, however, seems to be pretty easy.

“I love it. I really do. It’s really exciting for me,” he said.

He particularly enjoys being able to use his undergraduate degree everyday, especially since it’s in a field one might not expect — sculpture.

He got his art degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, after leaving Drexel’s electrical engineering program. While he also obtained his master’s in engineering from Stanford while in California, it was his artistic rendering, computer graphic and video editing work that got his foot in the door at JPL designing 3-D landscapes of Mars.

He takes what the rover sees, and uses that to give the team a virtual look at a planet tens of millions of miles away.

“It’s pretty amazing looking,” Hartman said. “The landscape spreading out in all directions, and we’re going to drive into that.”

It’s the perfect job for Hartman, an avid hiker and natural adventurer.

“I like to drive, I like to hike and explore. I really enjoy coming into work and learning what’s going to be next.”

There’s a thrill too in knowing that his daily tasks, his every day, is history in the making.

Even the act of drilling a hole into a rock, which they have yet to do with Curiosity but have with previous rover expeditions.

“You kind of realize, that little hole will be there a really long time. You’re kind of making your mark on another planet. I’ll take my daughter out, and point her out Mars. It’s pretty amazing, looking at it with naked eyes. On that little speck, there’s an even tinier little speck that’s our rover, that we sent up there,” Hartman said.

It’s a mark that Hartman never imagined he could make, especially when he was just a kid in Pitman, marveling over Neil Armstrong’s eternal footsteps on the moon.

“One of my first memories was the moon landing in 1969. And I remember seeing images from Mars sent back in ‘76. It’s something I put away in my life that I was able to rediscover and come back to. In that regard, I’m living a dream,” Hartman said, adding that he’s proud his job description, in a way, can be boiled down to one word — exploring.

“Exploration is really what it’s about. Maybe this is the first step to sending humans up. That’s a good thing for our country to be doing. I’d be more than happy to have my name associated with some of the great explorers of the past. Everybody with me on the team is very conscious of that — the heritage of exploring.”

And while Hartman is loving his life in California and his explorations on Mars via Curiosity, there are a few things he misses about life in South Jersey.

“Every time I come back, it’s pizza, cheesesteaks, scrapple, pork roll,” Hartman said, laughing. “And of course, my mom and dad. I’m always happy to take my daughter back over there, stay in Pitman, go fishing in the lake and show my daughter where I grew up.”

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