As the rovers Spirit and Opportunity troll Mars for the sixth year, beaming images to Earth of a rock-strewn terrain, UCI alumnus Michael Martin wanders the lush vineyards near his home in Mendocino, Calif., some 30 million miles away. Now semiretired, he works at a local winery, pouring pinots for visitors who have no idea the unassuming gentleman with the wavy gray-brown hair played a key role in the rovers’ ascent to the Red Planet.
“Those rovers rode into the heavens on Delta II rockets launched from the sands of Cape Canaveral,” Martin says, “and an Anteater helped.”
A member of UCI’s 1969 charter class, Martin led the teams that launched the spacecraft in 2003.
“These were the first great voyages of discovery in the 21st century,” he says. From 2000 to 2007, he worked to launch the Mars Exploration Rovers; Deep Impact, the first spacecraft to intercept a comet; STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory), twin spacecraft orbiting the sun; and Phoenix, his third mission to Mars. They were “the best seven years” of a 40-year career in aerospace engineering.
“It’s important for people to choose a career they enjoy and have fun with instead of just having a job,” Martin says. “I did that. It’s every kid’s dream to launch rockets and blow stuff up.”
Growing up in Orange County, Martin liked tinkering with anything mechanical.
“I was building rockets in my garage,” he says. “I belonged to the high school amateur rocket club, and we’d go test rockets at the El Toro Marine base. Luckily, we didn’t lose any body parts.”
By the time he enrolled at UCI, he knew he’d become an engineer.
In those days, the new campus was so barren, it looked like Mars.
“Sometimes I’d walk around campus at night and there’d be nobody around,” Martin says. “It was pretty spooky, with nothing but these really big buildings.”
Being a pioneer had its perks: To test a trigger device that counted cars (to calculate the open spaces in parking lots), he and a fellow engineering student talked campus officials into letting them drive a car and a motorcycle around pedestrian-only Ring Mall before anyone figured out that was a bad idea.
“We were stretching the boundaries — with engineering dean Robert Saunders’ help,” Martin says.
After getting his bachelor’s in engineering, he spent the next few decades working for Rockwell before joining the Delta launch vehicle program in 2000.
“On my first day, the manager walked into my office and said, ‘The jury is in. You get the two Mars missions.’ Nobody could ask for more,” Martin says. “We typically managed three missions at a time, so we had to be really organized. I had to balance the workload of the whole launch vehicle team.”
One of the most memorable days of Martin’s career was Jan. 4, 2004, when the first rover landed on Mars.
“When Spirit touched down, it went quiet for what seemed like 15 minutes. I swear to this day I did not breathe the whole time,” he says. “Then it started up and said, ‘Hi, guys. Here I am.'”
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have continued functioning long beyond their original three-month mission schedule, relaying intriguing clues about the possibility of life on Mars.
“There’s no proof yet of life, but the rovers have demonstrated there was lots of water on Mars for a long time, and life as we know it requires water,” Martin says. “It’s been great to be part of the mission.”
Since retiring in 2007 and moving with his wife, Yasmine, to Mendocino, Martin has become more grounded. He spends three days a week at Husch Vineyards, working in the office and the tasting room.
“I told them I wanted to do something closer to Earth,” he says.
Originally published in Vol. 1, Iss. 4 of ZotZine