Live From Mars was active July 1996-December 1997.

Meet: Charles Whetsel

Spacecraft Systems Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Who I Am

As a spacecraft systems engineer on the Mars Global Surveyor Project, I am responsible for making sure that the spacecraft we are building will meet all of the scientific objectives that we have planned for our mission.

My Job

Our project is organized into three main groups: 1) the scientists who are conducting the experiments and designing the cameras and other scientific instruments to survey the planet Mars; 2) the mission designers, who work to define what trajectory we should take to get to Mars, what orbit we will be in when we get there, and how we plan to operate the spacecraft while there to maximize the scientific data return; and 3) the spacecraft engineers, who design the spacecraft on which the instruments will be mounted so that it will: supply the required power to the instruments and keep them pointed well enough to collect the required data; provide the propulsion necessary to change or "trim-up" the spacecraft orbit as required; provide the radio link required to locate the spacecraft and send remote-control commands up to it; and return pictures, scientific data and engineering telemetry back from the spacecraft.

We systems engineers work first with the mission planners and scientists to make sure that we understand what they are expecting the spacecraft to be able to do, and then, after we think we understand it, we communicate that downward to the specialized engineers who are each responsible for building the specific parts (or "subsystems") of our spacecraft (e.g., the computer specialists or the radio specialists). As systems engineers we are also responsible for things that the spacecraft is expected to do and that are split between more than one specialty (e.g., the number of pictures that we can relay from the camera depends both on how much power the radio engineers drive their radio with and also on how precisely the control engineers can point the large parabolic [high gain] antenna).

What I Like About my Job

I enjoy my job a lot because, in addition to all of the different kinds of technology it exposes me to, it also requires a lot of teamwork. A spacecraft itself (as well as many of the subsystems of which it is made) is so complicated that it is almost impossible for a single person to be able to understand everything that is required to complete the mission. I spend a large part of my time using both technical and communication skills (translating something from one technical specialist into something another specialist can understand). Sometimes, when you realize how complicated someone else's design really is, it can be a very humbling experience!


I've always been fascinated by the space program. My earliest memories, when I was three or four years old, were of when my parents would let my older sister and me stay up late to watch the Apollo mission launches and landings. Growing up in rural Tennessee, neither of my parents had a technical background (although my father and I loved to build model airplanes), but they really worked hard to instill in my sister and me a love of reading and learning.

My Career Journey
When I left Tennessee to go to college in Boston, I knew that I wanted to get a job working in the space program. As an undergraduate in college, I studied both engineering and planetary astronomy. In graduate school, I specialized in control system engineering. When I look back on which classes I enjoyed the most and which ones helped prepare for my job, the best ones were team design projects - where the class as a whole is given a project to solve. In these classes, one had to realize quickly that the way to get the best grade is not to compete against the rest of the class, but rather to cooperate and take advantage of everyone's strengths so that the final solution is the best possible. These classes also emphasized the most important skill that any engineer can posses - problem solving. If you are interested in technology just for its own sake, then you should become a researcher or a scientist. The mark of a true engineer is someone who can take all of these neat new tricks of technology and piece them together into something that someone can use to solve a real-life problem that's facing them.

After finishing school in Boston, I began work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where I have worked since then. My wife Anne and I live in Pasadena with our two cats. We met while we were both in school in Boston and have been married for four years. She works as a management consultant, helping people figure out what their companies should be planning to do in the future. Anne and I enjoy biking and running together (although I cannot run as far as she wishes I could). We also enjoy eating out at restaurants together (which is the main reason why I can't run so far!).

I am very excited about the upcoming launch of our spacecraft to Mars. I am very anxious to start this mission and get our spacecraft safely into orbit at Mars, where it can begin returning its valuable scientific data. My first job after graduating from college was working on the Mars Observer spacecraft. We were very disappointed when we lost contact with that spacecraft in 1992. In many ways, I feel like with the Mars Global Surveyor project, we are being given a second chance to return to Mars, since we are carrying many of the same scientific instruments that Mars Observer carried when it was lost. We feel confident that we understand what went wrong with Mars Observer, and have done everything possible to avoid any further problems, but we all must appreciate that an endeavor as difficult as spaceflight is not without its risks.