2005 Federal Employee of the Year

Orlando Figueroa

Led the development of the Mars Exploration Rover project.

All of the work that our government does is important and serves a public purpose. But some of the stuff our government does is just plain cool. That is simply the best way to describe the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project. Of course, there are many practical applications to this research. But perhaps more importantly, there is also an incalculable value to the excitement that you get when you see the striking images of the red planet. They conjure up notions of possibility that fuel the human spirit and inspire us to pursue even greater heights in all aspects of our society. The American people, and the world in fact, have Orlando Figueroa and his team at NASA to thank for this bolt of inspiration.

While Mars has long been the source of great curiosity and potential for discovery, NASA’s efforts to study our neighbor have largely been met with frustration. Despite being designated as an important agency goal since the time of its inception, NASA did not land anything on Mars from 1976 to 1996. In 1997, there was a single “sprint” landing, just to show that it could be done, but without a significant research component. That was followed by two failures to reach Mars in 1998 and a lot of soul searching.

In 2001, Orlando Figueroa was asked to take over the reins of NASA’s efforts to reach Mars, and the Mars Exploration Rover project was on its way.

The MER mission was designed to search for evidence of the role of liquid water in the geologic history of Mars by examining rocks and soils using a mobile laboratory. This endeavor has been extraordinarily successful in meeting this goal, clearly showing evidence of ancient water and helping to re-write our knowledge of the planet. In approximately 400 days of science-driven surface operations, these roving vehicles have produced a wealth of scientific discoveries far beyond original expectations, revealing aspects of Mars as a potential habitat that were previously unknown. And for the first time in history, a mobile science laboratory has been used to conduct remote exploration on the surface of another planet, penetrating regions beyond the original landing site.

Without the contributions and leadership of Mr. Figueroa, these missions could not have been accomplished in the brief three-year development period. He led the activity through its accelerated development and managed an outstanding team of people at NASA headquarters, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the academic community. Technical challenges against an immovable launch window opportunity forced the team to re-think whether to continue with only one rover. But Figueroa pressed forward, his team overcame the problems, and the rovers have performed splendidly.

For all of the specific and technical successes of this mission, as with all of NASA’s work, its true impact is found when looking at the broader implications. What this mission is really about is testing the theory of whether we are alone in the universe. Thanks to the Mars Exploration Rover project, we have learned that at one point Mars was wet and warm, in contrast to its current cold, desert-like landscape. While we haven’t found evidence of biological activity yet, such an environment could possibly have supported life. This is mind-blowing stuff.

And if you want proof that the Mars mission has sparked people’s imaginations across the globe, consider the fact that the Mars rover section of NASA’s Web site has received more than 9 billion hits. This popularity could potentially have significant societal benefits by getting young people interested in careers in math, science and engineering, areas where the need is severe. And who knows? The best may be yet to come. Figueroa and his colleagues are building on the MER mission to continue to lay the groundwork to one day send a human to Mars. Now THAT would be really cool.