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—Ursula C. Mentjes, M.S., ACC
President and Certified Business Coach
Potential Quest, Inc.
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Director Corporate Diversity
Sempra Energy
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Manager, IBM Software Executive Briefing Program
Silicon Valley & Worldwide Briefing Program
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Development Associate
Asian Law Caucus
San Francisco
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Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Dept.
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Manager of Corporate Public Affairs
Safeway Inc.





2013 Legacy of Leadership


Robotics specialist and rover driver Vandi Verma Tompkins, Ph.D., watches the earthbound Curiosity replica go through a sequence of moves at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Yard. Vandi will accept a Trailblazer Award on April 29 at Leadership California’s Legacy of Leadership celebration in Los Angeles.    

THE EYES OF THE WORLD are on an odd-looking Mars vehicle known as Curiosity, which roams at the will of a cadre of specialists in robotic space exploration, including VANDI VERMA TOMPKINS, Ph.D.

VANDI IS ONE OF THE ELITE FEW women from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to drive a Martian vehicle, and currently the only woman driving Curiosity and operating its robotic arm. Her diverse technical skills include teamwork in Mars Science Laboratory mission flight software, surface sampling and handling systems engineering, integrated vehicle systems testing, and avionics.

Vandi guides the rover in activities including analyzing sample scoops of Martian soil, discovering evidence of a stream that once flowed across the Martian surface, photographing rocks and studying them with a spectrometer, and snapping rover self-portraits.

Vandi Verma Tompkins Ph.D.:
Trailblazer Makes Tracks on Mars

by Carol Caley
April 8, 2013

Q: Vandi, this is a first for us at Leadership California. We’ve honored trailblazing women leaders before, but not someone who has been one literally. Do you see yourself as a trailblazer?

A: I GUESS IT MIGHT BE A HAPPY ACCIDENT from what’s natural to me. When I’m hiking in the woods, I find myself off-trail more often than not, and I do love driving rovers on Mars. Ever since I was a little girl, I guess I’ve never needed a well-trodden path. I definitely gravitate to exploring the unexplored.

Q: Your passion is robotic space exploration, specifically the development of closed-loop control software, including fault diagnosis and recovery. Could you explain to us non-techies what this means?

A: WE CAN'T PRE-PROGRAM OUR ROVERS when we send them to Mars. By definition, we’re sending them to a place we know very little about. We can’t joystick them because there’s a time delay—from 10 minutes to half an hour, depending on the relative position of Earth and Mars at the moment. So we program them to be intelligent, so they can read sensors and swerve around a rock, for example. I’m really interested in that—putting it right on the robot, so it will have the intelligence to perform. What’s even more interesting is when something unexpected happens—and the rover itself figures out what the problem is and then works around it without calling home.

Q: So that’s a fault diagnosis?

A: IT COULD BE THAT SOMETHING BREAKS on the rover. On Spirit and Opportunity [rovers which landed on Mars in 2004] over the years we encountered a number of faults, such as the stuck right front wheel, arm shoulder joint, and parts of the rock abrasion tool. Or it could be something in the environment that we can’t control. We’ve recently had radiation effects that caused problems with our memory, and yet we can still talk to the rover. It adds a whole new level of capability. If the rover gets into a situation that you didn’t expect, it can recover. I’m particularly interested in that.

Q: So “recovery” would mean, once you’ve diagnosed the problem, then you can send it instructions to correct itself?

A: SOMETIMES WE DO THAT. Sometimes it’s just the rover knowing that there’s a problem and not continuing on. Just having the rover “know” that—to not complete the plan—takes a lot. If you’re trying to do a sequence of choreographed moves, and it didn’t get to where you expected, you don’t want it to continue the rest of the sequence. So that might just mean, “stop and call home.” Or it might detect a problem and then say, “how can I correct this and get back to where I was?” It can correct itself right there, and then continue on—that’s  the recovery. You’re putting in this piece of software the ability to recognize, react and continue on as if nothing happened. I find that fascinating.

Q: You’ve been a driver and robotic arm operator for an earlier mission, Mars Exploration, and drove the wildly popular Spirit and Opportunity rovers from your lab here at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Canada Flintridge. Those two adventurers garnered a lot of attention for their role in scientific discoveries, and their mishaps enthralled fans around the globe. Now you drive the Curiosity.

A: NINE YEARS INTO THEIR 90-DAY MISSION—that’s pretty good! The Mars Exploration rovers were the trailblazers for robotic space exploration. We gained a lot of experience from operating them—learned all these lessons, and it allowed us to go a step further, and build a vehicle with even more capabilities. Curiosity is a lot more complicated and harder to control, but there’s so much more we can do with it.

Q: How were you selected to be in the driver’s seat?

A: I HAD WORKED FOR YEARS ON BUILDING and testing Curiosity and knew it well. I was also driving Spirit and Opportunity at the time. So it was sort of a natural fit for me.

Q: You mentioned that Curiosity doesn’t have a joystick. It’s not like NASCAR—you’ve got to tell it what to do in advance. It’s a lot harder than it seems to control this buggy, correct?

  Robots exploring space, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be working on.

A: NOT ONLY DOES IT NOT HAVE A JOYSTICK, you have to think of what could go wrong because you’re not there to hit the brakes! So you have to pre-think all of these situations. With added capability comes many more ways that things can go wrong.

Q: After earning an engineering degree, you left your home in India to attend Carnegie Mellon University, declined several offers of arranged marriages sent from back home, and as a grad student, drove your self-built rover in the Chilean desert. You’ve climbed glaciers and run marathons, fly planes and ride a motorcycle. Are you brave or curious or a daredevil, as some have called you?

A: I DO FIND SCIENCE and exploration fascinating.
You just never run out of interesting things to think about and work on. Exploring in general comes naturally to me.

I love field robotics, which is putting a robot in a real environment in which we’re going to operate it. You do a lot of academic work, and you solve problems in an academic setting, whereas when you take a rover in the field, you can’t assume away the real-world problems. That transition interests me.

At Carnegie Mellon, I was exposed to a lot of different robotic projects. The robots we worked on were all very different. We had the robot we took to Chile. We had ones that look like trash cans with sonar—we put them in a maze against other robots, and their job was to find balloons faster than the others. I’d always been fascinated with space, and the combination of the two was a natural fit for me. Robots exploring space, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be working on! I was fascinated with having a piece of machinery react in an intelligent way, where you can’t intervene—to have it thinking.

Q: “Thinking” –that’s why people fall in love with robots like the Spirit and Opportunity, right? They start to have a personality, like a celebrity. People can relate to Curiosity as an adventurer.

A: WE HAVE OPEN HOUSES here at JPL, and I always volunteer for them. We have so many young kids who come in—some of them are younger than our rovers on Mars. They know every little detail, and are full of ideas and suggestions every time one of the rovers gets stuck. It’s incredible to see the interest. It motivates kids to go study math and science. I think that’s very encouraging for kids: robots and dinosaurs seem to work!

Vandi puts the Curiosity replica through a rock drilling sampling test in the Rover Sandbox at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.    

Q: I’m thinking you want something new to happen at work every day, a new puzzle to challenge you. What’s a work day like for you? What’s been most challenging? Are you still coming in 39 minutes later each day, to be on Mars time?


During the lifespan of a project like the Curiosity Rover, you do very different things. In the early stages—four years ago—what I was doing was very different from what I was doing 3 years ago, 2 years ago, and now. Right now, my days vary from driving the rover to working on future capability. On days I’m driving, I come in and look at data that’s come in from Mars, check what the situation is, and see if everything went according to plan. I check with the science team. There are various other teams for the various cameras and instruments, power and such. They decide on the next interesting target or observation. Each team member speaks a different language or has a different motive, but we all know each other’s expertise, and it all plays together, each domain of these experts. While we were on Mars time, we had experts on Mars science from all over the world here at JPL—it was just incredible.

As a Rover Driver, you then go off and plan the details. We all meet up at various times of the day and review the combined plan until the end of the day when we send it off to the rover. Rover driving is a pretty cool job. Often you go from a blank slate to a plan that involves hours of driving or arm motions; and you have to think through all the things that can go wrong and understand the limitations of our knowledge on Earth of the rover’s situation on Mars, and account for the inevitable inaccuracies of, say, placing a 100kg robotic arm on an irregularly-shaped rock on another planet.

Other days, I work on things we haven't yet done on Mars. We may go test something on the Curiosity’s twin in the Mars Yard at JPL, observe the behavior and revise it. Or we may discover a shortcoming in our design and go back to the drawing board and propose changes, which at this point we can only make to software. There are other days where I work all by myself, sitting and programming a new capability in simulation. I love to do that. So it’s a varied job—and all of it is very engaging. I really do love the job I’m doing.

Q: So you’re not on Mars time now?

A: NOT ANY MORE. WE TEND TO DO THAT for the first 90 sols, as we call them—which is a Martian day—90 days of a mission, when we’re in the early days of a mission. So it was from August 5 to November 5 that we were on Mars time. Now we’re on Earth time, even though we’re doing six-day-per-week operation. I have an app that tells me Mars time.

By now some of the science folks have gone back to their home universities and institutions, and now we work by phone a lot, and we use chat and all the other modes of communication.

Q: So you’re not just looking at raw data, lines of code coming back from the rover, you’re actually looking at animations?

I started working on Curiosity before we had even a single flight motor. Seeing it go from there to the day when our Entry, Descent and Landing  team blew all our minds with that daring, crazy landing on Mars, being part of the team that had so much invested in that landing—if that didn’t work, literally everything I had worked on for all these years would never see the light of day.  

A: WE HAVE HIGH FIDELITY SIMULATIONS we use off the rover, and we can place the arm in images we’ve gotten back, and drive in this terrain, and see it in stereo—our cameras are like two eyes, so we can get depth perception. It’s similar to a video game interface. We also look at just pure commands and data, but you have to take into account that the knowledge we have from all this data is only partial. On Earth, we don’t know the exact situation of the rover, so accuracy is a challenge. We’re commanding a 100kg rover arm, to centimeters within a rock of an arbitrary shape. So you really have to think about what the inaccuracies are.

Q: What’s been the most challenging thing?

A: THE MOST CHALLENGING THING is to tear myself away from what’s happening on Mars. It’s just so hard, even on your days off, to not want to see what’s new. When we were on Mars time, we were on ‘round the clock. But you find that you have energy that appears out of nowhere.

Q: So when you were on Mars time, you loved it?

A: I THRIVED ON MARS TIME. It didn’t bother me at all. I loved not having to wait to see the results from the rover.

JPL has a transitional timeline for mission teams when they go back on Earth time, to help them get back in sync with the rest of the world. Now, we skip a sol if we receive our data late in the day, whereas on Mars time, we would plan through the night.

Q: A 12-year-old girl might learn about you and say, I want to be a robotic spacecraft engineer! What advice would you give her?

A: THAT'S ONE OF THE BEST PARTS of the one-on-one interactions that I have with the incredibly intelligent and amazing kids that come through here at the JPL open houses. I didn’t discover robotics until much later in life, but once I did, I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to do. So it would be pretty cool to see a 12-year-old make that same joyful discovery. What I tell them is: immerse yourself in the math and science, find opportunities to apply those skills. Be true to yourself, and if you’re passionate about something, don’t let convention get in the way.

Q: Do you think women bring particular strengths to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields?

A: THE MOST CREATIVE, OUT-OF-THE-BOX thinking teams I’ve been part of consist of people with varied work experiences and very different perspectives. Women in STEM tend to have arrived on those teams through very non-traditional paths, so by definition they bring a very different perspective. Teams plateau if everybody thinks the same way. It helps to have people who can poke at a problem from a different side. Women in STEM add value to the team.

Q: Can you share an experience with us, a moment or milestone that really meant a lot to you?

A: SHARING MARS TIME ON CURIOSITY with a team of such incredibly talented people was an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve been driving rovers on Mars for years. I started working on Curiosity before we had even a single flight motor. Seeing it go from there, to the day when our EDL team blew all our minds with that daring, crazy landing on Mars, being part of the team that had so much invested in that landing—if that didn’t work, literally everything I had worked on for all these years would never see the light of day. Seeing it go from there through our three months on Mars time, being a part of the first drive, the first robotic arm deployment, the first instrument usages, the first time we scooped and delivered samples to the instruments. Seeing it all work was really special.

Q: Millions of people around the world watched that animation, and their jaws dropped. It gave everyone some idea of the complexity of what people do here, and the knife edge that you’re on, to get things to work. People couldn’t watch it enough. I saw it probably 10 times.

A: I was in D.C. when the Sojourner [rover from the 1996 Mars Pathfinder mission] landed. I was blown away. I thought, I want to do this someday! I was in graduate school working on space robotics by the time Spirit and Opportunity landed. Then when Curiosity landed, being in the same room with some of the people who had inspired me, suddenly I thought—wow, I guess I’m part of this incredible endeavor.

After we’ve been on the surface of Mars for some time, things may seem everyday—ah, they just scooped up some soil. If you were part of what it took to get there, you don’t need any accolades, but there’s a little smile at the back of your mind. Something you care about went from inception to better than you could have imagined. It’s incredible how well everything on Curiosity has worked so far on Mars, especially after years of seeing it all break a few times, having to go pick up the pieces, re-thinking how we’re going to do something differently—it’s a great journey, very special to me.

As I’ve seen at our open houses, people are inspired by what we do here. Sometimes you wonder if you’re working in a little bubble. Even though you care about what you’re working on a lot, you might think, is it really the most important thing? It’s really neat to have that community support. It makes a huge difference.




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