From Southeast to Mars



The first full-color image sent back to Earth from the Mars Perseverance rover on Feb. 18, 2021.

Donovan Powell, Reporter

Todd Barber at work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Courtesy photo)

The Perseverance rover took a lot of time and effort for its landing on Mars, much like Todd Barber and his perseverance to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“Once I got to MIT, I settled in on aerospace engineering and the allure of the space side was really strong,” Barber said. “As a sophomore there, you can apply for co-ops and internships and I didn’t quite have the grades and I applied to JPL because I loved them so much and I didn’t make the cut.”

Barber graduated southeast 30 years ago and now is the lead propulsion engineer at JPL in Pasadena, Cal.

“My specialty is in mission operations which is actually flying these beautiful spacecraft and rovers and getting them to their destination rather than building them.”

His very first mission was the Galileo mission to Jupiter in 1989.

“Galileo had tons of problems, you know, the main antenna didn’t come out and we had leaky valves and short circuits all the time. So what could have been a boring cruise for years and years was nothing but excitement and engineering challenges and fun problems to solve.”

His leadership and execution on the Galileo mission led to him being named the lead propulsion engineer for the Cassini mission to Saturn which spanned 20 years from 1997 to 2017.

A digital rendering of the Cassini probe as it orbits Saturn. (NASA)

“I joined in April of ‘97, about six months before launch, just to get it ready and get it launched. It was supposed to be a 6.7-year trip out to Saturn, get there July of 2004 for a four year mission we did the four year mission, we did a two year extended mission…we did an extended extended mission that went actually another seven years so we ended up crashing into Saturn – on purpose – in 2017.”

After Cassini, Barber took up multiple projects such as Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), a mission that will  map the earth’s soil moisture, and multiple other Mars projects.

“I did Spirit and Opportunity, which were the big Mars rovers in 2004. And then curiosity which is the biggest rover on the red planet now, so that launched in 2011 for a 2012 landing and is still going; it’s still driving around today.”

Barber’s biggest project is actually overseeing a probe launched almost 45 years ago.

NASA Engineers at work on the Voyager 2 probe in 1977. (NASA)

“The mission that inspired me from my youth, Voyager, this most distant human object, they were having thruster problems their little rockets were misbehaving. So I got called in as a consultant four hours a week to help them out. They liked my work and then one of the guys told the project manager you know Todd needs a job he’s crashing into Saturn so Voyager hired me half time starting in 2017 and that’s really my long term project now.”

However, Barber expressed that southeast set him up well for chasing his dream of becoming an employee at NASA.

“I am so proud it is really unbelievable the caliber of teachers at Southeast while I was there in the mid ‘80s, especially in math and science; they were absolutely phenomenal.”

You can learn more about the Mars Perseverance rover here on NASA’s website.