O Brave New World

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O Brave New World

This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue of The Jag magazine.


In the summer of 2003, NASA launched two Mars rovers aptly named Spirit and Opportunity. Their purpose was to explore the Martian surface and search the landscape for any geological evidence there may have once been water on the planet. Their mission was intended to last 90 sols, or Martian solar days. Exceeding the expectations of even their creators, Spirit remained active until 2010 and Opportunity will celebrate its 14th anniversary this year, having travelled 45.08 kilometers on Mars as of January, breaking the record for the longest distance driven by any off-Earth vehicle. An asteroid was even named after Opportunity, in recognition of the rover’s immense contribution to our understanding of the red planet.

North of Pasadena, next to the San Gabriel Mountains, Pete Waydo ‘91 sits in his office at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and recalls the moment he watched years of hard work, care, and caution get blasted out of the Earth’s atmosphere. He had helped design and build the suspension systems for Spirit and Opportunity and was also involved in the Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations (ATLO) team for the rovers as well as the rest of the spacecraft that carried them to Mars and safely onto the planet’s surface. “At the time of the launch, we would have been thrilled if the rovers had worked for a little bit,” Waydo said. “For Opportunity to have lasted this long, it’s just extraordinary.”

What also might be considered extraordinary is Waydo’s path in life that brought him to his current role as the deputy section manager of the spacecraft mechanical engineering section. He oversees roughly 400 engineers, scientists, and designers who are responsible for all of the mechanical engineering and development of JPL’s flight spacecraft. Although fascinated by space as much any child, Waydo explains, he never imagined it as a profession. “I was a car guy.
I grew up hearing about my dad’s exploits as a professional drag racer. I also always wanted to take things apart and put them back together again, so the car world naturally pulled me in.” At 14, Waydo attended a car show with his father and saw a 1965 Mustang in pristine condition. “My dad told me if I wanted a car like that to drive to school, I would have to build it, so that’s exactly what I did. Painstakingly, over the next couple of years, I restored a ‘65 Mustang and was able to drive it. Of course, I later ended up pushing it to prom.”

Fortunately for the success of the Mars rovers’ missions, no pushing was required. Though growing up thinking he would most likely become an automotive engineer, Waydo, while a student at Northern Arizona University, accepted an internship with Boeing in Seattle that “planted the aerospace seed,” he says.

“Then I did a 6-month co-op at NASA/JPL after my junior year, and that sealed the deal. At the end of my co-op they told me they’d like me to come back full time after graduation, and I couldn’t even think of looking for other opportunities.”

Waydo began working for JPL in 2000, getting his start helping to build the Mars rovers. After Spirit and Opportunity safely landed, he joined the Surface Operations team, monitoring the health of the rovers’ mechanical systems. He next worked on the formulation team in the early days
of what would later become the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the most technologically advanced rover ever built.

His initial love of cars never left Waydo, though, so he decided to leave JPL and pursue his own business involving vintage Mustangs. He also started a family. Daughters Mischa, 12, and Mila, 10, already show a strong proclivity for critical thinking and applying the scientific method to all facets of life, not just STEM-related. Waydo says his favorite thing in life is raising his daughters to be strong, independent, and curious about the world around them. It’s a foundation for learning he discovered as a student at Wellington. In small classes that made it impossible for students to hide, Waydo remembers all of his teachers prioritizing thinking and questioning over mere memorization. “They didn’t teach us what to think, but how to think,” he recalls.

To impart that very same emphasis on deep thinking on his daughters today, Waydo enjoys endless exploration. They often travel, either getting out of town for the weekend
or, most recently, backpacking around Greece. “It was an unbelievable experience together,” Waydo says. “The girls really studied up on their Greek mythology beforehand and then visiting many historic sites on the trip made it all real. They’ve been hooked on Greek mythology ever since.”

Over the past several years, Waydo’s interest in cars has waned in favor of motorcycles, a passion that has him touring all over California and exploring remote backcountry. He can find life in Los Angeles hectic at times, but has learned to escape it through hiking, camping, and bike riding with his daughters.

In 2011, Waydo returned to JPL as the mechanical lead for the Mars 2018 mission, a joint NASA/European Space Agency project that was canceled after a year. He then became the mechanical systems engineer for the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, an Earth orbiting climate science satellite. Waydo again transitioned onto the ATLO team, this time as the mechanical lead. It was a project he was intimately involved with through its launch in December of 2015.

When offered the opportunity to move into management, Waydo thought it would be a nice change of pace after the intensityof a major flight project. He soon discovered the work was just as busy, but he enjoyed it. His first role was technical group supervisor of the Mechanisms and Mobility group, a team of about 20 engineers who develop the wheels, suspension systems, and many of the mechanisms of JPL’s spacecraft and rovers, as well as the motors and gearboxes that make it all move.

Often asked the best academic route to a career like his, Waydo’s answer is not what people are expecting. “The rigorous grounding I received in English, writing, and communication at Wellington has served me well throughout my career. The greatest ideas and insights are meaningless if you can’t effectively communicate them and know how to process what others are communicating. I’m surrounded by strong technical people every day, but the ones who have risen to the top are the great communicators.”

In late 2016, Waydo became the deputy section manager of the Spacecraft Mechanical Engineering Section. Still, even today, he shows a palpable excitement at the thought of perhaps one day travelling into space himself. As Carl Sagan famously wrote, “We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” Having helped build the ship, with the vast benefits of a Wellington education, Waydo is more than ready to set sail.