From a Sculpture Degree to Driving on the Surface of Mars
Frank Hartman BFA '92 (Sculpture) pilots the Mars rover Curiosity for NASA
August 21, 2012
Frank Hartman BFA '92 (Sculpture) took his fine arts degree a long way after graduating from the University of the Arts – all the way to Mars.
Hartman, a native of Pitman, N.J., now calls NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in California home, where he spends his days boldly going where no one has gone before: driving the rover Curiosity across the surface of the Red Planet, as he did for the past eight years with the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Although he's worked hard for his success – earning a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford along the way – he says, "some days I can't believe people pay me to do this. I'm very lucky."
Hartman started out as an engineering major at Drexel University, but decided he wanted a broader education and enrolled at UArts in the Sculpture program.
"I also took one of the earliest computer graphics courses available back in the early 90s," he says. "Then I started training myself in computer animation. I moved to California and got a job with an animation company, but that closed down. One of the guys who worked there knew someone at JPL, they needed a person who knew how to edit video, which I learned at UArts and through an internship at a Philly public access TV station, and they hired me."
While working in JPL's animation lab, Hartman eventually ended up creating animations for NASA Imax movies, all the while working on his skills as a computer programmer. He created what he calls a "video game" for a Mars rover, and his boss urged him to contact the directors of the first such mission, Pathfinder, which was just getting underway. He enrolled in the program, went through extensive training, and spent the next eight years as a pilot of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, exploring the surface of Mars.
And that is a tricky business: one false turn could ruin the $2.5 billion mission. Curiosity is 154 million miles away from its drivers and signals take 14 minutes to travel from one planet to the other – meaning the rover could go over a cliff before the driver even sees the edge coming – so he and his colleagues spend their long workdays programming the rover's entire next day while it rests. Then they hit "send," the rover begins its tasks and they get some sleep, waking the next morning to analyze the new images and data Curiosity sent back overnight. Then the cycle starts anew.
"We look at the pictures, shot with 'stereo' cameras, through special glasses that create a 3-D view," he says. "It's breathtaking to go to work every morning and be the first human to ever see some of these features on Mars."
Hartman says he could not be doing what he does today if it weren't for his education in Sculpture at UArts.
"All the rover drivers and planners have different strengths and one thing I'm able to do is interpret three-dimensionally what I'm seeing in these 2-D images," he says. "I can conceptualize the three-dimensional view, and my classes in Sculpture at UArts are what enabled me to do that, to understand and visualize forms."
Hartman and his fellow rover divers will spend the next two years exploring Mars. And in his spare time, he still pursues his passion for art.
"I'm still doing ceramics," he says. "My wife and I have a ceramics studio in the garage. Right now I make functional pieces mostly. I really do love sculpture."