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Mars Rover Operator & Milwaukee Native Darian Dixon Says 'There's No Typical Path' To STEM Careers

Darian Dixon
Courtesy of Darian Dixon
Darian Dixon in front of a Curiosity rover model, which landed on Mars in 2012. He was part of the team that put together the Curiosity "gigapixel" — the highest-resolution picture ever taken on any exoplanetary body.

On February 18, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars after traveling eight months through space. This is NASA’s first big return to the red planet since Curiosity landed there in 2011. One Milwaukee native and UW-Milwaukee alumni has been fortunate enough to work on both rover missions.

Darian Dixon is a mission operations specialist at Malin Space Science Systems for the Perseverance rover — otherwise known as a Mars rover operator. His job includes instructing some of the cameras on the rover to capture stills so that scientists can continue to learn more about the planet's atmosphere, landscape and soils.

A typical work day for Dixon involves checking on the rover's cameras and computers, keeping tabs on the data they're collecting and getting a sense of how the rover is doing overall. He says there's also a lot of meetings, code crunching and software support.

"It's really fun, it's really interesting, and it's also a lot more ones and zeros than people expect," Dixon explains.

While the tasks are very structured, days have to be built around Mars' schedule. "One day I might start my day at 8 a.m., and then because of the Mars day being a little bit longer than the Earth day, two weeks from there I might be starting my day at 8 p.m.," he says.

When first adjusting his work schedule, Dixon says he relied on lots of coffee, video games, Netflix binges and even walking the dog at 4 a.m. to stay awake.

For both missions, Dixon has worked on the data, coding and programming needed to instruct the rover cameras to take and transmit thousands of images back to Earth. While the technology has gotten better, he says there's no major changes to the systems they operate with.

"I wouldn't say things change drastically too fast with cameras and for a lot of instruments on spacecraft. Because there's the benefit of what we call "heritage" and that is drawing on your past experiences, your past technology, upgrading them but also using old things that work and work well," says Dixon.

One of his favorite parts of his workday is looking at the data the rover sends back, or "checking in on the rover's day," Dixon says. He admits that he and the team have developed a fond relationship with the "truck-sized robot." "We have definitely developed a kinship with this machine. A sense of love, and worry and care. ... We all feel like parents of a giant hunk of metal many miles away," he says.

Dixon says his interest in space, and sciences in general, have been top of his mind all of his life. As a kid, he says he had glow-in-the-dark stars decorating his room, would watch any space documentary and even read astronomy textbooks for fun before even understanding the math behind it.

However, when Dixon first went to college, he majored in political science. "Part of that is I was afraid of all the math and perceived difficulty, and it really didn't click for me until I moved back and transferred to UWM and that fall the Curiosity rover launched," he explains.

Watching the launch coverage helped Dixon realize that being a part of a mission like that was something he should be a part of, but the pathways to space aren't very clear. "In my mind, I’m just, ‘OK, the Mars rover launched. I want to work on that thing one day.’ But there’s no typical path to get there," he says.

After combing through course catalogs and getting guidance from a mentor, Dixon made the switch to studying planetary geology. "It amazed me how obvious it was that geology could be a path to working in space," he recalls. "Because I don't think that clicks in a lot of people's minds, they think you need to study physics or astronomy or engineering. When we talk about Mars, we're talking about one big old rock. ... Once I realized that was an option, ... it seemed like such a great fit."

Dixon admits STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are a hard path to immediately envision getting into, and that lack of direction was part of his early hesitation holding him back from getting into the field. So, that's why, he says, he takes every opportunity to encourage others, especially students of color, to take a closer look at careers in STEM.

"I think it's easy for them to either fall through the cracks or miss that opportunity, or pass up on it because of fear because they haven't really often been directly introduced to someone like them from a similar background," Dixon says. "Someone that was also afraid at first, that has made it to a stellar career and has shown them there's a path to do that."

He says, "It's important to me to explain that and share my journey and hopefully inspire others. ... There's always a path to a really unique career in STEM, it's just you just gotta go out and look for it and work for it."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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