Remembering Robert Mitcheltree

By Neil Cheatwood and Bobby Braun

Robert A. Mitcheltree.

Robert Allen Mitcheltree's life ended tragically in an automobile accident on Jan. 6. Bob received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from NC State University, Raleigh, N.C. He joined NASA Langley as a civil servant in 1989, working in the Aerothermodynamics Branch and Exploration Engineering Office. Bob moved to California in 2001 to work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was 44 years old.

Image Left: Robert Mitcheltree, a former Langley employee, was killed Jan. 6. Photo by Jeff Caplan.

Bob's contributions to robotic planetary exploration are immense. He was a major player in the design and development of the Mars Pathfinder, Mars Microprobe, Stardust, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), and Mars Sample Return projects. In each of these projects, he didn't just contribute. Rather, he identified the greatest technical challenge, made it his own, and always seemed to craft a novel, practical solution.

Perhaps Bob's greatest professional achievement was his development of the Mars Sample Return Earth Entry Vehicle. Bob worked on this project from 1997 to 2000, and was the Chief Engineer of the sample return capsule that will one day bring samples back from Mars. This was a challenge tailor made for his engineering wisdom and innovation. At a time when parachute descent was the norm, Bob proposed a chuteless entry system for possibly the most important and difficult robotic mission of our generation. While many thought this concept was sheer lunacy, Bob's reasoning was quite sound: improved reliability through the elimination of potential failure modes. As reliable as parachutes are, Bob argued that they were not foolproof, and his design simply did not need one.

Bob Mitcheltree checks on a dropped protoype Mars Sample Return Earth Entry Vehicle. Photo by Jeff Caplan.Image Right: Bob Mitcheltree checks on a dropped protype of the Mars Sample Return Earth Entry Vehicle. Photo by Jeff Caplan.

Bob received a patent for his single-stage, passive entry system design and ultimately convinced all of NASA that his was the correct approach. As demonstration of the validity of Bob's thinking, others have recently proposed a chuteless entry system as a means of robotically returning lunar samples to the Earth. This time, those who proposed the entry system received kudos from NASA for the elegant simplicity of "their" concept.

After moving to JPL, Bob morphed himself into a parachute expert, planned and executed many of the entry, descent and landing tests for MER, and ensured the success of the Spirit and Opportunity landings through a rigorous, disciplined verification and validation program. Bob cherished the MER experience and team. He loved the thrill of getting to see something he designed operate successfully on Mars, but was even more proud to have contributed to the expansion of humanity's scientific knowledge.

In many ways, Bob was a throwback to an earlier time -- to the old NACA days or the early days at NASA, where people worked hard on important problems until they figured out clever, crafty solutions. A focus on technical excellence is how our Nation achieved supersonic flight, sent humans to the Moon and robotic probes to the planets. It was not through management oversight, external reviews, TQM, ISO and personnel politics. Innately, Bob understood these principles, and it shaped the way he spent every day of his professional life.

Bob embraced change, yet he valued his constants in life: family and friends. As for his friends, after decades of treasured moments, both working hard and playing hard, Bob was the closest many of us had to a life-long friend. He will be sorely missed.

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