Mars explorer and computer science alumnus’ career defined by curiosity and opportunity
March 30, 2018
Opportunity and Curiosity are not only the names of two of Dave Lavery’s Mars Exploration Rovers, they are apt descriptors of his career path as an alumnus of the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science.
Lavery will speak in Hancock Hall Room 100 on April 6 at 11:15 a.m. as part of the department’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
Lavery, the program executive for solar system space exploration at NASA, became curious about exploring outer space from an early age. From the time that he was 6 years old, Lavery’s dream was to become an astronaut and experience the weightlessness of outer space, like career space explorers John Glenn and other astronauts he watched on grainy television screens being catapulted out of Earth’s atmosphere on solid rocket boosters.
Ultimately Lavery’s poor eyesight kept him out of the astronaut academy and set him on a different kind of trajectory toward studying robotics.
“I started to learn robotics to fulfill my dream by sending a robot to space as my proxy,” Lavery said.
A major boost to Lavery’s career was the time he spent at Virginia Tech as a computer science major. As an undergraduate, he took computer science courses, with general engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence classes thrown in for good measure. It was a curriculum that could easily fulfill the requirements for courses in Space Exploration 101 today.
Upon graduation, Lavery got a job as a contract software engineer for NASA.
“Virginia Tech gave me the knowledge and expertise to pursue the first NASA contractor position I applied for,” Lavery said.
But it’s also the classes that weren’t required for his major, the ones that he pursued out of pure intellectual curiosity, that Lavery recalls as being significant in his training for studying space exploration.
“I took a lot of glassblowing classes. I learned a lot about glass and about working with molten minerals as a medium. It was really fun,” Lavery reflected. “That knowledge of how glass behaved under different conditions became useful to me on space projects investigating the soils of other planets. All of the sudden that knowledge about glass was very important in my later career.”
And that’s advice Lavery gives to Hokies today.
“Take advantage of the breadth and knowledge that’s available to you as a student right now,” Lavery recommended. “At Virginia Tech you have the wonderful opportunity to take classes and learn about all sorts of areas that may not be obvious to you now, but you’ll find out later that your curiosity and intuition will have guided you to these areas for future reference.”
Another opportunity Lavery cites as contributing to his fruitful career is being fortunate enough to attend Virginia Tech as a student of George Gorsline’s, a spiritual guru of the department whose reputation as an inspiration to untold numbers of computer science students persists to this day.
“George taught me technical things like how to structure my thinking, how to decompose and prioritize problems,” Lavery said. “He was also a generally fun person. He sort of infused all of us with the idea that it is critically important to have fun with your profession. There is something wrong if you aren’t excited to get up and go to work.”
And judging by Lavery’s success he has had a lot of fun.
Along the way he’s also contributed to fundamentally changing the mindset of NASA space exploration regarding labs as mobile devices. Previously, it was considered blasphemous to suggest that labs should be anything but stationary entities. Lavery worked with the Mars Pathfinder team that used the first mobile robotic explorer in 1997, Sojourner, that proved labs could be mobile.
“It completely changed the paradigm of how we were going to explore planets,” Lavery said. “Until Sojourner, no one thought roving labs could work. Sojourner proved that we don’t have to have the lab sitting in one place. The lab can move, and we can take the lab to the point of interest.”
Under Lavery’s guidance, mobile labs have been the lynchpin of the U.S. space exploration program.
He is currently responsible for mobile experiments slated for flight to Mars in 2020. New experiments include the development of the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser, an instrument that will analyze the Martian atmosphere, and the Mars Helicopter technology demonstration, an experiment that will test the ability of the rover to work in collaboration with a drone.
Ultimately the insight gleaned from research conducted on Mars missions will inform how human settlements could one day be established on the Red Planet, fueling the next generation of space explorers who will greet greater challenges than their predecessors.
This time Lavery has beat astronauts to Mars, however, because a little piece of him, and his 6,000-member team of scientists, is already there.
Written by Amy Loeffler