- NASA engineers are continuing to drive the Mars Curiosity Rover while working from home.
- The job is highly technical and delicate, but the team has already managed to complete a successful operation under lockdown.
- Business Insider asked two of the rover team how they manage their work-life balance now the rover has colonised their living space.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Life during lockdown has meant millions of people having to adapt to their home and work lives colliding. But what’s that like when your work involves driving a nuclear-powered robot on the surface of Mars?
Business Insider spoke to two of the NASA technicians currently piloting the Mars Curiosity rover from home. It’s a delicate operation that takes careful planning between a team of roughly 75 NASA engineers and scientists. Even while working remotely, the team was able to rig up their home workstations well enough that the rover has already completed a successful drilling operation while its human operators are in lockdown.
Despite doing the most otherworldly job imaginable, the Curiosity rovers are having to contend with familiar stresses of lockdown working life. They told Business Insider their personal tips and tricks for staying focused and healthy as they work from home.
Matt Gildner is the planning team lead for the rover, which means he directs a team of about 20 people who build the commands to send the rover to tell it where to go and what to do. Gildner’s day involves staying permanently teleconferenced in to conversations using two headsets, one in each ear. A few times a day he also uses red-blue 3D glasses to examine images sent back by the rover.
His first change to his work-from-home set-up: Get a better chair. “The first week I got here I had an old wooden bank chair that while it looked really nice next to my desk, [was] not very comfortable,” said Gildner. He quickly swapped this out for a more comfortable ergonomic chair. He and his wife are also making cold-brew coffee every night, ready to go in the morning.
Make sure you’re seeing some kind of change
Gildner’s also trying to make sure he doesn’t stay glued to his ergonomic chair, making it a point to get up and moving around. “It’s really about just getting up and stepping away from the desk for a while,” Gildner said. This could be to just go to the kitchen to get a snack or, in Gildner’s case, tend to some home baking projects.
“I was already baking some bread before this all happened, but I did kind of up my game in that area,” he said. Specifically Gildner (a fan of the YouTube cooking channel “Bon Appetit”) has started experimenting with overnight dough fermentation.
“It’s nice to go and have something new to see every morning that changed overnight, or you get to see something progress,” he said. “That’s an important part of mental health and this point in time – to make sure you are having something in your life that is life-changing and dynamic despite your being in the same place.”
He draws a parallel between this and his work on the rover. “That is one of the big draws of working a spacecraft operation, especially on Mars, is that every day we’re driving to a new place and I get to look at images that no human has ever seen before. And Mars is always throwing us something new.”
Keep a firm line between work time and downtime
“I also tend to really shut my computer down and put my phone away for work at the end of the day, just because I want to still try to keep some good separation between work life and home life, even though they’re happening in the same place right now,” Gildner said.
Project lead Alicia Allbaugh, who oversees the entire team of 75, also likes to draw a clear line between home and work life. She also recommends “not blending home tasks during your work time.”
“I try not to deviate too much from what I would’ve done at work. Because then it can get you distracted and you start pulling away,” she said.
Allbaugh also had to divvy up parts of the house with her husband, who also works at NASA. The two didn’t want to work in adjacent rooms because they might hear each other’s teleconferences through the walls, so Allbaugh works upstairs while her husband gets the kitchen, along with the couple’s two rescue bunnies Oreo and Grayce.
In her free time Allbaugh has been tinkering with home improvements, and finished a long-standing project of painting and varnishing some linen-closet doors.
Respect other people’s rhythms
As manager of a large team, Allbaugh also has to be sensitive to the fact that everyone has different daily rhythms working from home, especially those with children. Sudden mutes in meetings for children talking and clocks chiming have become the norm.
“We’re all very empathetic for each other. I mean we find this adorable. We’re not frustrated, whereas if someone came in and interrupted your meeting when you were in the conference room, you may have been like, ‘What was that about?'” said Allbaugh.
Keep up the social side of the office
Allbaugh’s team has also tried to keep social elements of their office going through virtual happy hours, and she has set up open-office tea break meetings so her team can just come in for a chat, which she thinks is important to keep up even as the lockdown drags on. “Because at first it’s novel, and then it’s okay – now it’s a marathon,” she said.