Curious, from 'Star Trek' to Mars

Jim Bodie and a team of engineers helped to put the Curiosity rover on Mars.

"Star Trek" reruns got Jim Bodie ’98, M.S. ’06, excited about space exploration. The show gave him hope as a kid that the future would always be better. He identified with Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer on the starship Enterprise, though not for Spock’s relentlessly logical perspective so much as his creativity.

“Kirk and Spock would get into trouble, and then Spock would have to devise something, make a radio out of something,” remembers Bodie, a test and integration engineer and 13-year veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This isn’t far from what Bodie – who holds CLU computer science degrees from ADEP and the School of Management – does today for space missions and other JPL projects, even using off-the-shelf electronics to build a system around the hardware he’s helping to test.

For the mission that put the Curiosity rover on Mars last August, Bodie and a small team of engineers were responsible for testing the terminal descent sensor, or TDS, the crucial radar system that guided the rover’s rapid descent to the red planet. As nearly as possible, they tested it in real conditions, strapping it onto a helicopter for lower altitudes, and later bolting it onto an F-18 fighter jet’s spare fuel tank, to fly it from 50,000 to 10,000 feet.

Charged with capturing data from the sensor, Bodie also worked to keep people and equipment safe on the field tests in 2009 and 2011. His creativity came to bear in designing systems around the sensor, for example when he had to reverse-engineer an inexpensive Ethernet temperature monitor to make sure the TDS wouldn’t overheat.

Aug. 5, 2012, was a moment of truth for hundreds of engineers working on the Mars mission. More than eight months after launching from Earth, the entry vehicle falling to Mars discarded its heat shield, exposing the TDS, which began relaying data about speed and altitude. Radio waves take long minutes to travel back and forth between Mars and Earth, so a computer on board had to make decisions about when to deploy steps in the intricate seven-minute landing process, which involved a parachute, retrorockets and a delicate crane maneuver.

By the time of Curiosity’s historic landing, however, Bodie was on to new challenges. He’s always learning. Not only did he work to pay his way through community college and the associate’s degree he earned in 1987 – for a time selling tropical fish and later servicing copy machines – but he also continued to pursue his formal education after landing his first engineering job. With many college credits under his belt and strong encouragement from his wife, he responded to an ad from ADEP.

Bodie says his nontraditional collegiate experience “gave me a lot of confidence to speak in front of groups. ADEP was small enough that the instructor had a chance to talk to everyone and help everyone out.” He stuck with CLU and earned his master’s degree while already a JPL engineer.

“This is a dream place,” said Bodie of the Pasadena-based space sciences center. “I don’t know where you go from here. Hopefully, I’m able to get in different areas and different avenues of design work and electronics and computer science.”

Bodie advises young people to diversify their expertise and be willing to accept something less than an ideal position, as long as they can find a strong organization: “If you get yourself in there and start learning the culture, who knows what will happen down the road.”