Generation Zero: Part 1

My Best Job Ever

The work described here was technical; that’s what made it interesting to me. If you’re not interested in the technical bits, feel free to skim over them. I think you can enjoy the story anyway, and of course you can still watch the demo movie.


I’ve always been interested in the exploration of space, by both astronauts and machines. It’s been amazing to see the state of the art advance, especially the Mars rovers. They’ve performed extraordinary feats of exploration, and reflected well on the scientists and engineers who designed, built and operated them.

Whenever I hear of new rovers and their accomplishments, I think back to my early experience at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, working on “Generation Zero” of JPL’s planetary explorers. A few years ago it occurred to me that others might be a little bit interested to hear about it. Of course, my family and friends have heard the story, and are probably tired of it. But the story was always just spoken words, pencil sketches and hand waving; I had no pictures of the rover.

A couple of years ago I became aware of the existence of tools to create three-dimensional animated models, and video based on them. It began to seem possible that I could actually master the tools well enough to illustrate my story. I even thought about sending a tweet to the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on Mars, alerting them to the story of their ancient ancestor.

It was my first real job after college. I graduated in 1970, and had a hard time finding a job with a fresh BS in Physics. I worked for a time as a sales clerk and warehouse helper for a department store, but by the time I married Susan in 1971, I still didn’t have a real job. Fortunately, I then had a wife with connections.

Getting Lucky

Susan had worked for Dr. Agnes Stroud at the Pasadena Foundation for Medical Research. Dr. Stroud is from the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of very few Native American female scientists. Her story is told in an inspirational book for young people, Scientist from the Santa Clara Pueblo, Agnes Naranjo Stroud-Lee by Mary Ellen Verheyden-Hilliard and Marian Menzel. She arranged for me to interview with John N. Strand, who supervised contract workers at JPL.

The prospect of working at JPL was very exciting. It was a key place in the exploration of the solar system with a wide range of space probes, and was doing all kinds of cutting-edge work.

The most likely type of work I could do for them was computer programming, so I took a printout from a 1969 summer job at Carnegie Mellon University. This was a “disassembler,” a program that took as input a “core dump” from a Univac computer (a snapshot of the computer’s memory generated when a program crashed), and generated a source code file in assembly language (to help debug the crashed program). The printout had a listing of the disassembler’s assembly language source code; as a sample of its output, it included the result of running the program on its own core dump, thus regenerating itself. It was kind of quirky, but the best I had.

John seemed to find my program (or my description of it) amusing, and the interview was brief. He instructed me to go to Foster Design, a “body shop” near Pasadena, and sign on with them as an employee, and to report for work at JPL. Foster had a contract with JPL to provide technical services.

It all happened very quickly. I didn’t have to interview again at Foster; John had notified them that I had been selected. In any case, I hadn’t been working very long when all of us technical services contractors were instructed to go to another company, and sign on with them. Foster Design’s contract had expired, and this new company had been selected. At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on, but there was no interruption in our work.

Getting to Work

When I started working at JPL in January 1972, John took me to a large room with about forty large plain wooden tables, the size of a desk but with only a shallow drawer for pencils and paper. The tables were in rows, abutting one another except for an aisle in the center of the room. John had a small office in a corner. There were both men and women, but I never got to know any of them. It was the kind of work environment we would call a bullpen, though I don’t recall actually calling it that at the time.

Next: Part 2 – Lunar “Dust”