2012-10-10 08:30:00

NASA Engineer David Oh Explores Mars, The New Frontier

 Now that NASA’s space shuttle program has been shuttered, it seems like the science engineers have become the human face of space exploration. For David Oh, lead flight director of the Mars Curiosity rover, that has meant a brush with fame after his family’s decision to live on Mars time was widely circulated by the press.

As one of the select engineers required to sync his work schedule with Martian time for the first three months of the mission, Oh’s wife, Bryn, decided to switch the entire family’s schedule to coincide with a Martian solar day, or sol, which is roughly 40 minutes longer than Earth’s. Think of it as changing time zones every day (with continual jet lag). That eventually meant family outings in the middle of the night with their children, Braden, 13, Ashlyn,10, and Devyn, 8. With the kids now back on Earth time after the nearly month-long experiment, we sat down with Oh at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., to find out more about him, the lessons of “Mars time,” and the future of space travel.

Can you tell me about your background.

I was born in Nashville, Tenn., and I grew up in Alabama and lived there until I was 18. I went to MIT and got undergraduate degrees in aeronautical engineering and music, and then a master’s degree and Ph.D. in aeronautics.

I understand both your parents were born in Korea. How did your family end up in Alabama?

My parents are both medical doctors. They met here in the United States. My dad is a tenured professor down at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and my mother is a professor emeritus.

Did they want you to follow in their footsteps?

They would have preferred for me to be a medical doctor, right? It’s the more traditional path. But I think they’re pretty happy, seeing us land on Mars. The coverage of the whole family and seeing it get international play both here and in Korea … I think they’re quite happy with that. And of course they’ve always contributed a lot to my development. They did push me hard academically, and they were always models of how to work hard and learn and to do well.

How have people reacted to the Mars time story?

One of my colleagues [came] up to me [and] said his wife had heard it on NPR and said how wonderful it was to see a family who did not allow work to get between them. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback, and the kids have great memories that will last forever.

Did the engineers anticipate that you’d be the face of the space program?

No, not at all. But one of the things I’ve learned, from the whole Mars time adventure and then from talking to people about it, is how much we as a country need the human story to go with the rover. Just sending people out and taking pictures of Mars, yes, that’s exciting, but people want to hear about the guy with the Mohawk [Bobak Ferdowsi], or about the guy who used to be a rock [music] guy who dropped out of high school and then came back and landed a rover [Adam Steltzner], or the family that took their kids on Mars time. These human stories are very important, and those are the stories that really interest people.

What’s next for Curiosity?

We’ve got this huge mountain off in the distance. And our whole intention from when we landed is that we’re going to go climb that mountain. And as we climb it we’re going to be climbing up through different layers of geology, just like in the Grand Canyon where you can see all the different layers of history. So I think there will be a lot more excitement as we come up to that mountain, and we start getting to really make these exciting scientific discoveries and learn the history of Mars.

For you and your colleagues, what’s more popular: Star Wars or Star Trek?

I’m Star Wars, definitely. But my colleagues, well, William Shatner came to visit us in the mission control center about six weeks before landing, and I have to say I’ve never seen such Star Trek fanboys in my whole life. I had no idea how popular he was at JPL.

One of my colleagues [came] up to me [and] said his wife had heard it on NPR and said how wonderful it was to see a family who did not allow work to get between them. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback, and the kids have great memories that will last forever.

Lastly, what do you hope youngsters, your children included, take away from the Curiosity mission and your Mars time adventure?

My wife and I were just talking about it today, how we kind of miss getting to go outside and see Venus in the morning and go out bowling at 4 in the morning and to the beach at midnight because for the kids it was a really unique experience for them. The reason [my wife and I] did Mars time is because we wanted [our children] to get the feeling of exploring L.A. and exploring Mars time just like the feeling we have of actually exploring Mars with the rover. And I think that they really got that because they really saw a part of L.A. they’ve never seen before.

I really hope that kids in particular will feel the sense of adventure and the sense of excitement that comes with exploring another planet. It’s like Lewis and Clark in the 19th century going out and exploring ahead of the pioneers that came afterwards. That’s what our rovers are doing. They’ve gone to Mars, and they are now those initial explorers going out, and I really hope that the pioneers will come after them and that those pioneers will come from this generation of kids, that they’ll be interested in science and math, they’ll be interested in building things and learning things and doing things that nobody else has done before.

This article was published in the October 2012 issue of KoreAm.
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