On the summer night that the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, Jet Propulsion Lab thermal engineer Joe Reiter stood in his Alhambra backyard looking up at the planet in wonder.
"That is a hell of a thing to be able to point into the sky and say we did that," he says. "That is special and not everyone gets to do that."
My first love was the science fiction shelf in my elementary school library. Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke led me into the world of imagination where I could dream of robots, spaceships and, above all else, Mars. Reiter grew up with similar fantasies — influenced by Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey — and is living his dream by working on projects that will reveal some of the secrets Mars may be hiding about space and life beyond Earth.
His path to becoming an engineer was, as he puts it, “pieces of the puzzle falling into place.” After taking all of the science classes available in his New York City high school, he added extra classes at the local community college. He attended engineering school at Cooper Union and graduate school at NYU-Poly, leaving with a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Married and a newly minted engineer living in Manhattan, Reiter started looking for a job on the East Coast. But positions building robots were scarce. His wife suggested they move to the West Coast.
Reiter and his wife Solmi were attracted to Alhambra because it reminded them of home. “The way the houses were situated, the way the people are and the street-level culture all reminded us of Queens, New York," Reiter says. "We were renting in Pasadena but ate and played in Alhambra.”
When an older Alhambra home opened up in 2008, the Reiters made their move. "It never made sense to my wife or me to buy a home without a history," Reiter says. "We don’t embrace the disposability of our culture that resides in our modern housing culture. We are willing to be caretakers of a home that we will pass on to someone else when we sell it.”
The move to the West Coast made all the difference. Reiter is among the 5,000 JPL employees that work in Pasadena under the guidance of NASA. “They say you can’t swing a dead cat here without hitting an aerospace engineer or company and my first job was at JPL," Reiter says. "For people like me this is the top of the pyramid.”
Reiter describes himself as a plumber, and you can see why when you view his testing lab filled with a myriad of pipes and valves and fittings. Reiter and his team at JPL were given the task of figuring out how to control the temperature of Curiosity. Maintaining a regulated temperature is no easy task on a surface of a planet with temperature fluctuations from 81ºF to -275ºF. Since thermal management is one of the most critical aspects of any mission, there are more than 100 engineers at JPL working in this field.
Reiter also worked on the thermal management system for ChemCam, the machine responsible for analyzing rocks and soil on Mars to determine their compositions. The ChemCam looks a bit like Pixar’s Wall-E, a robotic creature made of electrical parts. “ChemCam measures the analytical composition of rocks at a distance and this is pretty hard core,” Reiter says. “If you had told me way back that this is what we would be doing, I would say that is science fiction.”There is much debate about the need to send man into space when we have robots like Curiosity. Reiter believes we need both. “If there is any triumph in either the robotic or human programs, even if we could call them by those names and identify them as separate, it does not diminish the importance of the other one,” Reiter says. “You are looking at remote technology as paving the way for human exploration and then during the exploration automated technology assists the activity of humans.”
In the infinite vastness of the universe, are we just a fluke? Reiter explains our fixation with searching for life on Mars as a search for connection: “Mars seems to be a cautionary tale, in that it used to be Earth-like, with a warm and wet past, until the ground erupted and the oxygen became bound up with ice. The first thing we did in 1976, when the first Earth probes reached Mars, was look for life, and we are doing it again,” he says. “Carl Sagan wrote the book Contact that has the underlying theme that none of us want to think that we are alone."
Reiter tells the story about how one evening, just after purchasing his Alhambra home, he stepped out into his backyard. There was a warm breeze blowing and the sound of the palm trees rustling in the wind. He looked up to see the stars visible behind the palms and thought, “I can feel the Earth rotate and I know there is a universe out there and I have this strong feeling that in the grand scheme of things that we are not alone. This moment formed a strong connection to my house and a cathartic link between the life I had before and now. I wish more people could look up at the stars and feel like they are falling off the Earth.”