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Julie Townsend - Rover Driver
November 25, 2009

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Name: Julie Townsend
Job Title: Rover Planner for Mars Exploration Rover; ATHLETE Test Lead
Education: Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Master of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University
NASA Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Hometown: Birmingham, Mich.
Hobby: Gardening, music, and mentoring student roboticists
 

Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

What attracted you to a career in robotics?

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

What prepared you for your job?

Are you involved in any student robotics projects as a mentor or advisor? If so, please tell us about it.

Were you a participant in any NASA opportunities as a student? If so, please tell us about it.

What advice would you give to students interested in a career in robotics?


Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

I currently work on two projects: the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the All-Terrain, Hex-Limbed, Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, known as ATHLETE, a prototype robot for carrying astronaut habitats and other cargo around on the moon.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were my first project when I arrived at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) fresh from graduate school. I've been involved in every phase of the mission, from development through launch, to landing and operating on Mars. Now, I hold the coveted position of Rover Planner, also called Rover Driver, and I'm responsible for creating the command sequences that move the rovers and their robotic arms around on the Martian surface.

ATHLETE is a prototype robot, a robot built quickly and cheaply to test concepts that we might want to send into space someday. Prototypes are how NASA gains confidence that a certain idea will work before dedicating dollars to putting that idea into space or onto the surface of the moon or Mars. Unlike flight projects like Spirit and Opportunity, prototype project teams are typically only a handful of engineers, so we all end up doing a little bit of everything. As Test Lead, my primary responsibility is testing the ATHLETE's capabilities and planning demonstrations to show what the robots can do, but I also do lots of other things, like designing mechanical fixtures, assembling and repairing robot electronics, and debugging robot software.

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What attracted you to a career in robotics?

My high school offered a couple of robotics classes, where students built robotic assembly lines around an old robotic arm donated by a local factory. I really enjoyed those classes, and as I took more courses in college and saw how smart and flexible robots could be, I became really fascinated with them.

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What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

The successful landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers was a definite high point, but each year of my career is full of highlights. As anyone who has worked with robots knows, every time a robot successfully demonstrates a new capability is a banner day that we celebrate and brag about to all of our friends. For example, when the new ATHLETE prototype successfully climbed down from a half-scale mock-up lander carrying a mock-up astronaut habitat this past September, we made a movie that I now carry around on my phone and show to anyone who will watch!

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What prepared you for your job?

What most prepared me for my job was hands-on experience from my graduate school robotics courses and student satellite research projects. In those environments, I learned that the robot you design is not always the robot that works. Your first idea is almost never the perfect one, and you just have to keep revising and testing until it comes out right. Also, it was through those projects that I gained confidence in my own ability to learn whatever new skill was needed to complete the task at hand. If you don't know how to do something, that doesn't mean you can't do it - you just have to do some learning first.

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Are you involved in any student robotics projects as a mentor or advisor? If so, please tell us about it.

I mentor a Girl Scouts robotics team for the FIRST Tech Challenge competition. (FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.") My team is FTC Team 25, the Rock N' Roll Robots. I love showing girls that they are absolutely capable of designing and building robots that can compete with anything their competitors - mostly boys - bring to the field. The Rock N' Roll Robots team formed in 2007 and has qualified for the National Championship competition in both seasons they've competed.

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Were you a participant in any NASA opportunities as a student? If so, please tell us about it.

As an undergraduate at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), I participated in the NASA Academy program. I interned at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. At the time, I was interested in Human Factors Engineering and spacesuit design, so my internship wasn't related to robotics at all. However, that summer, the Mars Pathfinder lander arrived at Mars carrying the Sojourner rover. It was observing that event from MSFC that made me aware of JPL and the fact people were sending robots to the surface of Mars. I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to be a part of the very next Mars Rover landing!

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What advice would you give to students interested in a career in robotics?

Get some hands-on experience. You can't really learn robotics from any textbook or homework assignment. The only way to demonstrate that you can make machines work is to build some machines and make them work! These days there are lots of opportunities for kids to build and compete: solar cars, model rockets, underwater robots, robots for competitions like BEST (BEST stands for "Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology") or FIRST or VEX or others. Find an opportunity to design, build, program, and/or operate something!




 
 
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Julie Townsend - Rover Driver
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Page Last Updated: February 27th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator