Pinoy engineer makes sure Mars rover is running smoothly

Posted at 08/28/2012 7:39 PM | Updated as of 08/30/2012 9:03 AM

Manglapus says working at NASA a dream come true

MANILA, Philippines - When NASA's science rover Curiosity made its historic landing on planet Mars last August 5, a Filipino engineer was working hard to make sure its flight software was running smoothly.

Lloyd Manglapus, a senior software engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled the excitement and tension inside the Surface Mission Control room on landing night.

Lloyd Manglapus, a senior software engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is part of the Mars Science Laboratory project.

"All of us went through meticulous training for this event.  We have gone over seemingly every possible contingency.  All of us knew what to do and were focused on performing our responsibilities.  Nevertheless, the atmosphere was mixed with tension and excitement," he said in an e-mail interview with ABS-CBNnews.com.

"For me, the anxiety just seemed to build up as the entry-descent-landing sequence went through its progression. Everything just seemed to go perfectly - and sometimes, for an engineer, that can be a little unnerving.  When touchdown was confirmed, everyone in the room jumped in excitement.  There was a lot of clapping, high-fives, handshakes and hugs.  That was an awesome experience to go through," he added.

The $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory project (Curiosity) is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s, and the first that brought a state-of-the-art laboratory to the surface of a distant planet.

Manglapus had two main roles for the Curiosity project: flight software technical lead and mission operations flight software chair.

"As a Flight Software Technical Lead, I evaluate software design changes and investigate anomaly reports (bugs).  As a Mission Operations Flight Software Chair, I monitor Curiosity's Flight Software and make sure that it is running smoothly and ready to perform Curiosity's daily activities," he said.

Photo courtesy of http://www.nasa.gov

While the rest of the team celebrated Curiosity's historic feat by heading out to parties, Manglapus said he still had to work that memorable evening. "I got to work with the first data and pictures getting sent back by Curiosity.  Overall, a very fulfilling night for me," he said.

The hard work is only beginning for Manglapus and the team, since Curiosity will explore Mars for nearly two years.

"This is really just the start of Curiosity's almost 2 year mission on the planet - and what a great start it is!  A lot of the team members, including myself, will continue on to support the surface mission. During that time, each of us could also be pulled out to support other NASA-JPL projects. In fact, I am currently supporting multiple projects; but most of my time is currently spent operating Curiosity," he said.

Dream come true

For the 42-year-old Manglapus, it has always been a dream to work at NASA.

"I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to be involved in a project like this.  Like a lot of us, it has been a childhood dream of mine to be involved with NASA.  Having this dream realized has already been an amazing experience.  But being able to share this adventure with family and friends in the Philippines - as well as our fellow kababayans - makes it that much more special," he said.

He was born in Cebu and grew up in a a suburb just outside Marikina. He graduated high school from Marist School in Marikina and attended the University of Santo Tomas, majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science for 2 years.

After his family moved to the US in 1989, he studied at the University of Southern California, where he graduated Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in 1993 and a Master of Science in Computer Science in 1996.

Manglapus started working at NASA in 2000 as a contractor developing flight software. He developed flight software for an instrument called Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer, which was launched on NASA's Aura spacecraft and has been observing the lower Earth atmosphere for the past 8 years.

"Working at NASA can be challenging but it is definitely fulfilling.  You get to work with exciting technologies, challenging projects, and some of the smartest and dedicated people on the planet.  Where I work, the people are friendly, supportive, and respect each other," he said.

But there are downsides, like the demanding work, long hours and short vacations. "The downside is that the work can be tough and demanding and can put a strain on relationships.  Working a flight project sometimes means long hours, almost no weekends and even less vacations.  A great support system -- family and friends -- can help out a lot," he said.

Manglapus finds support from his wife Gilda Cruz, a trauma manager at a local hospital, and son Jaellan, who is finishing a pre-med course at the University of California in Irvine.

Asked if he has any advice for Filipinos who may want to work at NASA, Manglapus said it's important to be competitive and work hard.

"Go after your dream.  There is no one way to join NASA - if engineering or science is not for you, there are also a variety of other careers.  Be competitive, keep working to achieve your goal and don't lose sight of it," Manglapus said.