© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Good Night Oppy: Senior engineer reflects on the 90-day Mars rover that survived 15 years

Eric Baumgartner speaks on his time as a senior engineer for NASA and working on the Mars rover Opportunity
GPA Photo Archive
Dr. Eric Baumgartner speaks on his time as a senior engineer for NASA and working on the Mars rover Opportunity.

The new film Good Night Oppy tells the story of the Opportunity rover, which was sent to Mars for a 90-day mission but survived for 15 years. The film follows Opportunity’s groundbreaking journey on Mars and the bond forged between a robot and her humans millions of miles away.

One of those humans is Dr. Eric Baumgartner. Today, he’s the vice president of academics at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Before his work at MSOE, he worked as a senior engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from 1996 to 2006 and worked on all three rovers including Opportunity.

Baumgartner began his 10-year stint as a senior engineer at NASA's JPL in 1996. Growing up in upstate New York, Baumgartner was a fan of science fiction and science books, which naturally sparked an eventual life interest and goal of working at NASA one day. After pursuing the science field, he started working in robotics while attaining his Ph.D. This experience led to an opportunity for Baumgartner to participate in the summer faculty program where he worked with NASA LAB in Pasadena, CA, before being invited back into a full-time role.

While working on all three Mars rovers was fulfilling for Baumgartner, one still stands out from the rest. "Certainly the Opportunity Rover certainly holds a special place. I got to spend about six or eight months driving that rover around on Mars and using the arm to do some great science," he says. The rover utilized a specially engineered robotic arm to gather samples, access environments, and collect general data that was then communicated back to the team back on earth.

Though operating a highly sophisticated work of technology over such a considerable distance was nerve-racking for Baumgartner and the team, they were prepared for the challenge. They continuedtheir successful mission for many years.

"Understandably, you're stressed out about doing the right thing and doing it well. But, we trusted in the ways in which we tested and validated the hardware that it was going to be successful, and it was. So, when we got to Mars, we were very confident," recalls Baumgartner.

Opportunity Rover arrived on Mars in 2004 with an expected shelf and operating life of 90 days. Eager to capitalize on their chance to collect as much scientific data as possible, the team managed the rover continuously. Despite its high volume use, the rover, nicknamed "Oppy," continued to surpass its expected operation time limits until 2018.

While describing the scientists' realization that Oppy was nearing the end of its mechanical life, Baumgartner says, "Suddenly, at some point, they said 'We're done trying. The rover is never going to wake up and talk to us anymore.' We have to say good night Oppy, and that was an emotional time for me." Still, Oppy surpassed many expectations and enjoyed many successes.

Now, having returned to the education field, Baumgartner enjoys the chance to impart his knowledge and experience in the classroom.

"Part of the motivation to go to JPL is to be a better. It's certainly been a joy of taking those experiences both here at MSOE and my previous institution and bringing those experiences into the classroom and sharing those experiences with students," Baumgartner says.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
Related Content