On Earth, Scott Maxwell drives his red Prius without paying much attention to the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. He's lived in the same neighborhood of Pasadena for 18 years, after all.
When he's driving on Mars, though, every rock he encounters is a new discovery, a step toward humanity's knowledge of the planet he hopes to visit some day.
Maxwell has the dream job of driving rovers on Mars, and he's gearing up to take control of the biggest and most sophisticated one yet: Curiosity. He's one of about a dozen people at NASA tasked with steering the $2.6 billion vehicle from more than 100 million miles away.
"It's a priceless national asset that happens to be sitting on the surface of another planet," Maxwell says of the rover, which landed Monday morning. "You better take that damn seriously."
Maxwell loves to talk about how much he loves his job, and his effervescence is infectious, say colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home to Curiosity's mission control.
"The thing that always impressed me about Scott was just the passion that he has for what we're doing. He just loves being a rover driver," says Steve Squyers, a Mars expert who's worked closely with Maxwell. "He thinks he's got the coolest job on the planet, and he's right, I think."
The names of the rovers Maxwell has driven so far -- Spirit and Opportunity -- speak to his upbeat attitude and thirst for immersing himself in what he enjoys doing.
Through his blog and Twitter account @marsroverdriver, Maxwell interacts with all sorts of self-professed "rover-huggers" -- people who really love rovers.
Last week Maxwell tweeted, "VIP seats for opening night of @IndyShakes's Comedy of Errors! Last chance to see a play before the baby comes Sunday."
The baby, of course, is the SUV-sized Curiosity, which came to Mars after years of planning and preparation. It's been more than eight months since it left Earth, and no one can be sure exactly how it will behave, says Maxwell.
Over dinner in Old Pasadena last week, Maxwell and his girlfriend, Kim Lichtenberg -- a planetary scientist also working on the rover mission -- playfully compared it to having a child, though neither has had children.
"We're all going to be kind of like new parents," Lichtenberg says.
"Watch it take its first steps," Maxwell adds.
Landing Curiosity was such an amazing feat of engineering that NASA billed the process "seven minutes of terror."
Like anxious parents, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena were eager to see the rover arrive safely, and so were the reporters who flooded the NASA campus.
Maxwell said before the landing that he had confidence in the JPL team responsible for the entry, descent and landing of the spacecraft. But if the amazing maneuver went wrong, the whole effort would have been "all for nothing" for the many people who've sacrificing family time and vacations to pour their hearts into it.
"That seven minutes tells you whether the last seven years of your life had a point," Maxwell says.
Shortly after the rover's arrival, Maxwell tweeted to NASA engineer Adam Steltzner and colleagues, "Well done, @steltzner and company! Thanks for delivering our baby safely!"
Later, Maxwell added, "Hey, I still have a job Monday. :-D."
A voyage to break down the wall
Maxwell's eyes widen with joy when he talks about the parts of life he thinks are "awesome": His girlfriend. His other NASA team members. The Independent Shakespeare Company (@IndyShakes). His first lemon drop cocktail. The Cotswolds.
Something about Maxwell's thin frame, boyish features and the way he gets giddy over esoteric things resembles Jim Parsons' character on "The Big Bang Theory," although Maxwell is more jovial and socially gracious than Sheldon Cooper. His arms seem almost impossibly long as they move about while he explains the rover driving process.
With a youthful complexion and hair that finishes in a short tail on the back of his neck, it's impossible to guess Maxwell is 41. The first time he ever had lunch with Lichtenberg, she thought, "Aw man, he's way too young for me. Way too young for me." Later she found out she's about six years his junior.
Lichtenberg, fair and blond, grew up with the space program close at hand: Her father is astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, a NASA payload specialist who's flown on two shuttle missions. She has a Ph.D. in planetary spectroscopy, which deals with the interaction of matter and radiation in planetary environments.
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