LSU Alumnus Keith Comeaux Directs Mars Rover Landing

In the late evening hours of Aug. 5, 2012, Baton Rouge residents of all ages gathered at watch parties hosted throughout the city, joyously yelling “Touchdown!” at the television sets, projector screens and computer monitors where they congregated. It sounds like a typical fall weekend in this college town, but on the screens, where one might have expected to see a 200-pound football player, there was a 1-ton rover vehicle, and the setting was not LSU’s Death Valley, but rather the Gale Crater on planet Mars.

The landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on one of Earth’s closest neighbors captivated and fascinated people all over the world, but this historical and literally groundbreaking achievement held a special significance for the LSU community: University alumnus and Baton Rouge native Keith Comeaux served as test conductor, team chief and flight director for Curiosity’s launch, eight-month flight and landing on the Red Planet.

Comeaux, who now lives in Redondo Beach, Calif., said he’d always had a knack for math and science, along with an interest in airplanes and flight, even in elementary school. He graduated from Catholic High School and earned a full scholarship to LSU, where he joined the Air Force ROTC for a year and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, ultimately receiving degrees in mechanical engineering and physics. Throughout his high school and college years, Comeaux said, his ambition was to become a pilot, and he earned his private pilot’s license when he was a junior at LSU.

“Unfortunately, when I took my ROTC physical, I learned my vision wasn’t perfect, so after considerable deliberation, I pursued aerospace engineering instead,” said Comeaux. “LSU didn’t have an aerospace engineering program per se, but I took all the electives the university offered on the subject.”

When it was time to graduate, his mechanical engineering adviser suggested Comeaux further his studies at Stanford University, which has a partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. It was a good move for Comeaux.

Alumnus, team chief and flight director for NASA’s Curiosity rover Keith Comeaux talks with students during his recent visit to LSU. Jim Zietz
LSU University Relations

After graduate school, Comeaux spent 11 years in the spacecraft industry at Hughes Aircraft, which is now part of Boeing. “It’s completely fascinating to look back and see the different types of spacecraft we built for customers through the years, from government communications and weather satellites to DirecTV satellites,” he said.

In 2006, a former colleague contacted Comeaux about an opening at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, where concepts and studies for the new Mars rover mission that would become Curiosity were already under way. JPL was particularly interested in Comeaux because he’d studied reentry physics – expertise that would prove extremely useful, as JPL had just completed preliminary design reviews for the rover and gotten the green light from NASA to begin launch plans. Comeaux was hired to lead efforts to ensure the craft’s successful entry, descent and landing on Mars.

Curiosity continues the work of previous Mars missions, which Comeaux said have motivated scientists to “follow the water.”

“Looking at the surface of Mars, we could see features that we’d believed were carved by water, and in subsequent missions, we were able to confirm that,” said Comeaux. The 2008 Phoenix mission, for example, discovered ice beneath Mars’ surface.

Scientists believe Mars was once a warm and wet planet. “If that was the case,” Comeaux said, “why is it so cold and dry now? The chemistry labs inside Curiosity can investigate that.”

On Aug. 5, Comeaux led a team of NASA scientists through a successful rover landing on Mars. Throughout its lifespan, Curiosity will use its mobile laboratory to help us learn more about the landscape of the red planet.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The “chemistry labs” Comeaux refers to consist of 10 instruments housed in the rover, each designed to test different aspects of the planet’s environment, including rocks, soil, underground water, ultraviolet light and radiation. Curiosity also carries a weather station that measures Mars’ temperature and humidity levels.

By piecing together the data from these instruments, scientists aim to answer vital questions about Mars’ past, present and future: Could conditions on the planet have sustained life at some point? What about now or in the years ahead?

If Curiosity does find evidence that Mars could support life, Comeaux said NASA’s leadership is discussing the possibility of sending manned missions to the planet as soon as 2035. Curiosity’s mission itself is projected to last at least two Earth years (approximately one Martian year), but Comeaux says the rover may be able to survive much longer on the planet.

In addition to leading Curiosity’s launch, flight and landing crew, Comeaux was a member of the rover’s test team. “I was there in 2010 when we first turned on Curiosity’s computer brain, when she woke up and opened her eyes,” Comeaux said.

Artist’s rendition of Curiosity being lowered to the surface of Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech

He then traveled with Curiosity to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for five months last year to ready the rover for blast-off.

”The experience of launching Curiosity was exciting, but it was a bit more subdued,” said Comeaux. “It wasn’t fixed in time – we had complete control from moment to moment. If we saw any problems, we could abort the launch and fix them, so we were on the edge of our seats, making sure nothing went wrong. But after she launched, we all ran outside to watch, because then, it was truly out of our hands.”

Afterward, Comeaux returned to JPL in California, where he conducted Curiosity’s cruise operations and engineering checkouts during her eight-month flight. The voyage to Mars was mostly smooth sailing, he said.

Last month, Curiosity finally neared her destination. It was time to prepare for touchdown.

“We had done many simulations for Curiosity’s landing – and not one went so well as the actual landing night,” said Comeaux. “We were so conditioned to expect a glitch, but it was absolutely flawless. The communication process between us and the rover went especially smoothly – the signal was strong and clear for the flow of data and pictures she was sending us.”

It was a night of celebration for all the team had achieved thus far, Comeaux said, but he knew the work was still just beginning.

”So many things had to go right – I was excited, but very tense,” said Comeaux. “Others in the control room clapped at certain moments, but I was constantly thinking, ‘Okay, what’s the next step?’”

Artist’s rendition of Curiosity’s landing on Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unlike when Curiosity launched, Comeaux and the crew had much less control during the rover’s landing. The team had to stop “talking” to Curiosity an hour before touchdown. After that, he said, the rover was on her own until about two hours later, when communications could resume.

“With the time it takes for data to travel from Mars to Earth, what we were seeing was 14 minutes old,” said Comeaux. “There really wasn’t anything we could do but wait and watch. We were like Americans waiting to watch the delayed broadcast of the London Olympics on television.”

Now, Comeaux says his day-to-day work is much busier compared to the last eight months Curiosity spent in flight. His duties include surface operations and strategic planning for what the rover will do next on Mars. Comeaux collaborates on a team of 300 scientists, with whom he discusses the mission goals and plans to execute them in the days ahead. This massive crew includes a group of engineers who regularly inspect Curiosity’s functioning and a team of “drivers” who brainstorm ways to move and use the rover’s arm.

“Every day is a new day for us, and we have to have a large team that plans each day down to the finest detail,” said Comeaux. “We communicate those directions to the rover, she carries them out, sends back data and then sleeps for the next 16 hours. And during those 16 hours, we’re busy planning for the next day. My role helps fuel that process.”

Comeaux said the complexity of Curiosity is vastly higher than that of previous Mars rovers. “Just the sheer number of instruments presents a challenge,” he said. “We had to design their interfaces so that we make sure we’re not doing too much at once and one instrument doesn’t disrupt or damage another.”

Comeaux operates a team of 300 scientists, including a group of engineers who regularly inspect Curiosity’s functioning and a team of “drivers” who brainstorm ways to move and use the rover’s arm. NASA/JPL-Caltech

A brief description of what Curiosity has already accomplished in her first month on Mars illustrates Comeaux’s point. “We just ran the first drive for Curiosity, so seeing her tracks on the surface of Mars was another exciting moment,” he said. “We also got some zoom photos of the rover’s destination, Mount Sharp, and she just laser-zapped a nearby rock to analyze its composition. We’re now planning to run experiments in Curiosity’s lab.”

Comeaux said one of the next items on Curiosity’s to-do list is “sniffing the air.”

“Previous observations have detected evidence of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, which is a very tantalizing prospect,” said Comeaux. “From what we have learned on Earth, methane only comes from two known sources. One is active geological processes like volcanoes, which would be significant for Mars because it’s thought to be an inactive planet. The second possibility is living microorganisms. That’s extremely exciting to think about.”

But for now, Comeaux said Curiosity and her team of operators back on Earth will spend the next three months or so settling into a groove. “We’re still just learning how to operate the rover under Martian conditions and seeing what she can do,” he said.

Comeaux and family on the field in Tiger Stadium, where he was recognized as an honorary team captain for his work with NASA.LSU Sports Information

For Comeaux himself, he recently made the trip back to Baton Rouge, where he spoke to LSU’s physics and engineering departments and, of course, caught a football game. He was recognized as an honorary game captain when the Tigers beat South Carolina on Oct. 13.

Comeaux said he is appreciative of the strong, well-rounded education he received at LSU.

“I got exposed to all those different engineering disciplines that have helped me throughout my career,” he said. “The senior design project for mechanical engineer majors at LSU has proved especially valuable to me. In my work now, we have to design and build everything as a team, and these are skills I learned through that senior project.”

Comeaux said the things he misses most about Louisiana are his family and friends, most of whom still live in the Baton Rouge area, the food and the football.

“I never thought I’d wind up in California,” said Comeaux. “In retrospect, of course, it seems kind of obvious, given the huge amount of aerospace engineering projects going on out here. But it was definitely a culture shock.”

Keith Comeaux in a group photo of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers from the 1989 Gumbo. Comeaux is in the second row from the front, second-farthest to the right.LSU Gumbo

Comeaux said southern California, where he and his family live, is mainly influenced by two things: the entertainment industry and USC football. But no matter where his career leads him, he is always glad to give a hearty “Geaux Tigers!” This has inspired some “good-natured ribbing” from colleagues through the years, especially during the 2003 football season when the polls resulted in a “split national title” between BCS champion LSU and the Associated Press’ top-ranked USC Trojans.

And last year, when LSU’s football team emerged victorious from the epic regular-season “battle of the unbeatens” between the Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, Comeaux was preparing Curiosity for launch in Florida – and working with several Alabama natives. His work has taken his Tiger pride from coast to coast.

“The biggest advice I can give to students is to follow your curiosity – pun not intended,” he joked. “Find your interest and talent and pursue it. I didn’t plan to work on anything like this when I was in school – this kind of work was just unheard of at the time. But I followed my interest and it paid off. I was in the right place at the right time, but I was also well-prepared.”

That preparation, in large part, Comeaux credits to LSU.

For live updates, photos and more from the Curiosity rover’s mission on Mars, follow @MarsCuriosity on Twitter.

To learn more about research at LSU, follow @LSUResearchNews on Twitter.