This medal recognizes a federal employee for a significant contribution to the nation in activities related to science and environment (including biomedicine, economics, energy, information technology, meteorology, resource conservation and space).
Position: Program Executive for Solar System Exploration
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Location: Washington, D.C.
Achievement: Led the Curiosity rover mission to Mars that is exploring the Red Planet’s geology and climate, and assessing whether conditions are favorable for microbial life and future human exploration.
In August 2012, members of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team endured an excruciating 14-minute wait for signals to arrive from Mars to learn if the rover Curiosity had survived its landing on the Red Planet.
After its entry, descent and perfect landing, the rover Curiosity settled in the Martian soil 154 million miles from Earth and began looking for signs of habitable environments, studying the planet’s climate and geology and helping NASA assess the potential of a future human mission.
The historic mission, which will rewrite the textbooks on the geology of Mars and shed light on the possibility of life-supporting environments there, was the culmination of more than a decade of perseverance, engineering breakthroughs and scientific innovations.
The NASA team leader for this Mars mission is Dave Lavery, who has brought to the project strong management skills, state-of-the-art-engineering knowledge, a deep technical understanding of the rover’s landing requirements and a vision of what could be accomplished.
“Dave has been on the cutting-edge of making this happen. He shepherded the development of the Curiosity rover system through the complicated path from mission concept to reality,” said Jim Green of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
The Curiosity rover already has used its cameras and drilling capability to locate evidence of water-bearing and clay minerals inside a drilled rock. Analysis of powder from a drilled mudstone rock indicates past environmental conditions that were favorable for microbial life. An analysis of the surface dust on Mars also points to volcanic origins.
This information can lead to a better understanding of how planets change over time and aid in analysis of conditions existing on Earth. And, there’s always the possibility that evidence will be unearthed to determine if Mars may have been inhabited in the past.
As the program executive for the mission, Lavery brought an exceptional ability to focus on the many details of the complex program. The one-ton robotic Curiosity, about the size of a Mini Cooper, is the most complicated spacecraft America has ever sent to another planet.
Lavery regularly reviewed every step of the process leading to the launch, devoting attention to even the smallest detail. One bad bearing or one bad connection could lead to disaster. But it wasn’t just computer code and nuts and bolts. Lavery also had to deal with management responsibilities, including seeking the funding needed to keep the enterprise moving forward.
The mission originally was scheduled for launch in 2009, but was held up 26 months because of budgetary and hardware concerns. If the 2012 deadline had not been made, it would have been put off another 26 months while NASA waited for a new launch window. That put tremendous pressure on Lavery and his team to keep the project on schedule and on budget.
As the mission progressed, new problems arose that required the attention of Lavery and the team, including a computer memory failure that may have been due to a cosmic-ray strike, a precautionary stand-down to weather a solar storm, and a computer glitch that put the rover into safe mode.
Lavery said he was most nervous about the parachute that was used to land the rover on Mars. “It was the largest supersonic parachute ever built, and there was no way to test it in the exact environment in which it would be used,” he said. “We thought it would work, but there was no way to be sure.”
Lavery said he has been space-obsessed since he was young, dreaming of a career following his heroes, astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. When his poor eyesight disqualified him from the astronaut path, he decided to head into space virtually, through the machines that support space flight.
The first flight project he worked on was Sojourner—a rover sent to Mars in 1997 that sent back information for three months. “I had a hands-on role in getting that rover to another planet,” he said. “It was such a massive, overwhelming thrill.”
Lavery said the Curiosity project was “an amazingly bold undertaking” with a large, complicated management process and many moving parts. While stressful and filled with uncertainties during the course of the project, Lavery said, “It has been a truly rewarding and exciting experience personally and professionally.”
The Mars project, which started in 2002, has involved contributions from a core team of 20 people and work by thousands of others. Jonathan Rall, assistant director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said that Lavery’s role was pivotal.
“Without Dave’s constant oversight for this mission, it would not have been successful. We would not be sampling the soil on Mars,” said Rall.
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are presented annually by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to celebrate excellence in our federal civil service.