MSOE’s Newest Leader Knows How to Drive Robots – on Mars

His career has gone from Mars to Milwaukee

The Milwaukee School of Engineering’s new vice president of academics, Eric Baumgartner, includes on his resume a decade at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the storied spaceship-design center (small city, really) in the hills near Pasadena, Calif. – and the colorful camp of tech wizards portrayed in The Martian.

As a senior engineer, Baumgartner was involved in developing a series of increasingly complex Martian rovers, peaking with the Curiosity Rover, which could (still can) scoop up chunks of Martian ground and examine them with sophisticated instruments. Baumgartner leaves a longtime job at Ohio Northern University to become chief academic officer at MSOE, bringing along an impressive background that will help in both guiding technology-related programs and wooing potential donors.

Tell me your history as an engineer.
I had my first teaching position at Michigan Tech and taught there for three years, but I’d always had a dream of working for NASA and being involved in some way. After my second year, I got a chance to do a summer faculty fellowship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. I really wanted to impress them, and I was eventually [offered] a full-time job and moved my family all the way out to California. I spent 10 years at JPL and worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers all the way through design, development, assembly, testing, launch and operations. I was one of the first eight rover drivers, and we were the individuals responsible for navigating the rovers around the surface of Mars.

How do you drive them?
It’s not like getting behind the wheel of a car. We tended to operate the vehicles by setting up a series of commands that would arrive at the rover in the Martian morning, and it would execute those commands throughout the day and send data back. As a driver, you would typically sit with the scientists responsible for exploration and figure out what they wanted to do for the day.

Did the scientists run out of questions to explore?
Scientific exploration sort of never stops, and when I was serving as a rover driver, every day was an exciting day on Mars. With Opportunity, the rock abrasion tool is worn away. But there’s still enough on the vehicle to continue to explore.

How did you not drive off a cliff?
There are cameras all over the rovers that create stereoscopic views of the environment, and you can use those views to make terrain maps and understand what’s around the vehicle. The biggest fear was falling off a cliff or flipping the rover over.

How did you feel, driving something across the surface of Mars?
Once the rovers were up and operational and driving around, it was tremendous fun. Yes, you felt the weight of not screwing up, but there were lots of checks and balances along the way, including never doing something by yourself.

What brings you to Milwaukee and MSOE?
I had interacted with faculty and the leaders at MSOE going back 15 years or so, and 11 years as dean [of engineering at Ohio Northern University] turned out to be a long time. Deans these days are more on a six- or seven-year time frame, and I had accomplished quite a lot and was looking for some new opportunities.

Should we send people to Mars?
I think it’s in our nature to be explorers. Rovers and orbiters and landers are good because they don’t put people at risk. But exploration tends to be slow. Opportunity has driven about 25, 26 miles over a decade. Humans can travel a lot faster. ◆

‘Roving Engineer’ appears in the October 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.