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Former volleyball standout’s mission to Mars

MIT’s Jennifer Harris Trosper’s old team made an appearance in an NCAA Championship; her new one helps guide rovers across the red planet.

By Jack Copeland

After everything she packed into her days as a student-athlete at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it seems only fitting that Jennifer Harris Trosper’s days now are 24 hours and 39 minutes long.

That’s the length of a day on Mars, and Trosper is a key member of teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that have directed exploration for the past decade by four exploratory rovers on the Red Planet – including the current Curiosity rover.

At MIT, she was a four-year letter-winner in volleyball, helping the team to a 106-26 overall record and one appearance in the Division III Women’s Volleyball Championship. Capping off her senior year, she also played softball for a season.

But the aerospace engineering major also threw herself into her chosen field, working for a while before graduation in MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory on force-reflecting hand controllers designed for use on space vehicles.

She might just as easily have been a musician, able to play several instruments and building on childhood dreams of being a concert pianist. She minored in music at MIT. But, as she told the hometown Findley (Ohio) Courier shortly after Curiosity’s successful Mars landing in August 2012, “I loved (music) so much that I didn’t want to make it a career.”

So she made the exploration of space her career, but still found time in college to pursue her passion for music and sports.

Trosper currently is deputy project manager and systems project engineer for the Mars Exploration Rover Project at JPL. She works with the team that will be guiding Curiosity this year from its landing spot in Gale Crater to Mount Sharp, exploring Mars’ geology along the way.

Beginning 10 years ago this month, she served for a few months as mission manager for the Mars Spirit rover after having led development of that spacecraft (including its flight and ground software) and overseeing pre-mission testing and training.

Each of those 24-hour, 39-minute days on Mars began with a wake-up song for the Spirit rover, like Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” – a practice that continues with Curiosity. The mission team communicates with and controls Curiosity, transmitting the day’s instructions each morning – the guidance it needs to drive, scoop up and analyze samples or drill into Mars’ surface during the day. It then transmits a burst of data back to Pasadena that afternoon, including photos that will help the team map out the rover’s following day of activities.

It’s a talented team – and Trosper has likened the work to playing on a sport team, putting it this way in an interview with USA Today when she was selected for induction into the CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame in 2001:

“You have to know who to go to for specific things and utilize the whole team to get the job done,” she said. “It’s the same thing in sports. To learn how to work with people is very important, and sports was invaluable for that.”