Live From Mars was active July 1996-December 1997.

Meet: David Mittman

Mission Planner, Pathfinder
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

My Journals

My Job

I am one of several flight engineers on the Mars Pathfinder project. Flight engineers are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Mars Pathfinder lander and the rover, which will land on Mars July 4, 1997. Each flight engineer specializes in some specific areas of the spacecraft's operations such as long-range planning of activities, commanding the spacecraft, and monitoring the health of the spacecraft in flight. My areas of specialization are in planning the spacecraft's activities, and in sending commands to the spacecraft. These two areas are known as mission planning and flight control. Many of the flight engineers also double as flight directors and have the primary responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of the entire spacecraft.

As a mission planner, I try to balance the requests of the various scientists and engineers who want the lander and rover to perform specific tasks. I'm sort of like a parent who tells you that you can't install Blood-n-Guts 3.4 on your computer at home because your dad wouldn't have enough space left over for BizSnooze Pro 2.0. I have to tell the scientists that they'll have to take fewer pictures because you can't fit 64 megabytes worth of photos of the Martian surface into 48 megabytes of memory. I also get to tell the engineers that built the lander that, unlike the Energizer bunny, the batteries on Mars Pathfinder won't keep going, and going, and going...

As a flight controller, I get to talk with the people in California, Spain and Australia who operate the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Deep Space Net (DSN). The DSN is the critical communications link between Earth and Mars Pathfinder during its mission. The DSN transmits the commands that tell the spacecraft what to do, and receives the images and other information that the spacecraft sends from Mars.

My Career Journey

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in science and technology. My curiosity has always been the driving force behind my education and career choices. The majority of my work experience has been in software design and development for a variety of computers. Interestingly enough, I've never really studied computer science in a formal environment; all my experience with computers has been self-taught or acquired on the job. I have a B.A. degree in Psychology from Occidental College in Los Angeles where I studied psychology and philosophy as an approach to cognitive science, which is the multidisciplinary study of how humans think and learn.

Why I Enjoy my Job

I enjoy making computers do the things that I want them to do, either because I've learned how to use them properly, or because I've written the software that makes them work. I have worked on several different projects during the 10 years I've been at JPL, all of them involving computers. I don't think that I'd like a job that didn't involve computers in one aspect or another. I enjoy working at JPL because it is easy to find interesting projects which use computers. I've written software for microcomputers using HyperCard, and software for larger computers to control robots at the Kennedy Space Center. I've written software user's guides, and now I'm helping to guide the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft to Mars!

As a Kid

As a kid, I remember getting a subscription to "Scientific American" magazine for my 13th birthday. At that time I couldn't understand most of what was written, but I was interested in the kinds of articles that were in the magazine, articles from all areas of science. I was never a "Popular Mechanics" kind of kid, never interested in just one area of science, I was interested in all areas. I'm sure that because my interest wasn't very focussed, I didn't become an engineer, doctor, or scientist. Instead I learned about the computers which everyone needs to use in their scientific work.

My first experience with computers came in high school when my physics teacher acquired two new Apple II computers. I was able to tinker with them during after-school hours. I would take out "how-to-program" books from the local library and type the computer program examples into the computer to see how they worked. During summer school, I learned how to program in FORTRAN using punch cards on the school district administration mainframe computer; that was my first, and last, formal class on computer programming.

I've worked in a computer store assembling computer systems for sale, I've taught college extension courses on using computers in business, and I've owned my own business offering computer training to businesses and their employees.

I still don't understand absolutely everything in "Scientific American," but I still enjoy reading and learning about new areas of science and technology.

Some Personal Information

I live in Arcadia (population 65,000), a few miles east of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. My wife, Felice, teaches fifth grade in Duarte, a few miles east of Arcadia. We have two beautiful children, Jenna (age five-and-a-half) and Brandon (age three-and-a-half). Jenna attends kindergarten and daycare where she was recently named Student of the Month. Brandon goes to preschool where he was recently given a promotion to the position of "gate-holder" (he gets to hold the wrought-iron gate open as the other children pass through on the way to recess). We have three cats named Alex, Nikki and Marble, and two goldfish named Azalea and Big Max. Although born in Chicago, I consider myself a Californian, having lived in Arcadia for 30 years. I am 32 years old.