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B-E grad now chief engineer overseeing NASA missions

December 21, 2018
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Rob Manning (center) is seen with colleagues right after NASA’s InSight landed on Mars. On the left is Charles Elachi, the former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On the right is Pauline Hwang, an InSight systems engineer.

As a child, Rob Manning gleaned all he could about the latest space exploration from books, magazines and newspapers.

Today, the 1977 Burlington-Edison High School graduate has a front-row seat for NASA’s missions in his role as chief engineer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California.

“I find it amazing and magical that we can do this,” Manning said of projects such as the InSight mission that landed Nov. 26 on Mars.

In his role, Manning oversees a team of about 6,000 scientists and engineers. He said it’s his job to make sure those with the right specialties are assigned to the best positions on projects that involve sending robots into space.

“Just in my own lifetime we have reached out and seen so much of our universe and reached out in ways humans couldn’t have even imagined for millennia,” he said.

The mission — InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is aimed at studying the deep interior of Mars to learn more about how the planet and the solar system was formed.

While excited to learn what InSight can tell us, Manning said it’s far from the only mission on his mind.

He’s also closely watching the Cassini orbiter’s observations of Saturn and the Juno orbiter’s observations of Jupiter, as well as working on a new rover that will, eventually, be sent to Mars.

“Construction is as slow as the rovers move on Mars,” Manning said. “And if you did a race between our rovers and a Skagit slug, the slug would win.”

He also said he believes landing the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012 was the biggest moment in his career so far.

“Curiosity discovered that indeed Mars was a habitable place for simple organisms to live, the type of organisms that are happy living in the rock on our planet,” Manning said.

While working to help NASA develop, launch and land robots including Curiosity and InSight, Manning has received four NASA medals, earned a spot in the Aviation Week Magazine Space Laureate Hall of Fame, had a minor planet named after him and become an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“I have had this unbelievable nearly 40-year career,” Manning said. “My 12-year-old dream of doing space robots came true many times over.”

He credits some of his success to a foundation he built at Burlington-Edison High School, where he took a multitude of shop classes including welding, auto and small gas engines.

Manning said he wasn’t a stellar math and science student during high school, and he struggled to find confidence that he could land a spot on the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He committed to his studies, however, and moved from Skagit Valley College to Whitman College in Walla Walla before transferring to Caltech (California Institute of Technology).

While at Caltech, Manning said he was hired part-time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1980 to work on the Galileo spacecraft that launched for Jupiter in 1989. He’s been climbing the ranks ever since, becoming chief engineer of various projects and in April becoming chief engineer overall.

That means a lot of eyes are on him if something goes wrong.

“If something had gone wrong I would have been the one to explain how that happened to the public,” Manning said of the recent landing of InSight after its seven-month, 300-million-mile journey from California to Mars. “I am so glad that the robots I build don’t have people in them because it would scare me ... A lot of things have to click just perfectly for these things to work.”

When a mission does work, the robots send back new information, such as the sound of wind that InSight recently recorded from its landing spot.

InSight is equipped with instruments not only to record images and audio, but also to measure movement underground — called marsquakes — and the temperature below the surface.

From its landing spot in a flat area of an old crater, InSight will hammer a sensor into the ground to measure the difference in temperature between the surface and a depth of several meters.

And while learning about the solar system and universe is important, Manning said it also underscores the importance of caring for our home planet — “our little blue ball.”

A lot has changed since 12-year-old Manning — after seeing photos of NASA engineers at work in the pages of books from Time and magazines from National Geographic — envisioned himself a space station inventor.

Back then, most attention was on the moon, where NASA astronauts — heralded as “Earthmen” in newspapers across the U.S. — landed in July 1969.

Today, the focus has shifted largely to Mars, where the search for life and the prospect of sending colonies continues to inspire some of NASA’s research.

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