Mars rover designer makes landing at bluegrass festival - Free Lance News : Environment Science

Mars rover designer makes landing at bluegrass festival

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Posted: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 9:51 am

Mark Indictor, who was the lead designer for some of the software installed on the Mars Rover Curiosity that successfully landed on the red planet Sunday, will be visiting San Benito County this weekend. But it won’t be a science-related visit, as he will perform at the 19th Annual Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival.

Indictor plays the fiddle and provides some vocals for the Los Angeles-based “Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band” – which includes Glaze, a Broadway actress and award-winning recording artist; Rob Carlson, the lead guitarist who writes original songs for the band and also provides vocals; and Steve Rankin, who plays mandolin, banjo, guitar and vocals.

“I do as much music as I can do,” Indictor said, a day after the historic rover landed successfully. “I've been doing music since before I was doing engineering. It's truly my native tongue.”

Indictor said the success of the rover will make it easier for him to enjoy the festival this weekend, where Susie Glaze and Hilonesome Band has performed in the past.

“The fact is it is a small festival,” Indictor said. “Michael (Hall, of the Northern California Bluegrass Society) is a part of it, and Mike and Susie are friends from their hometown. It's getting up and playing good music with good people who also take good care of us.”

Indictor's band will be arriving on Saturday when they will perform, but also has a gig in Santa Cruz on Friday evening.

“I don't have to take any time off to do it,” he said, of his full-time job at Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, where he worked on the software for the rover. “JPL has a wonderful policy where we get every other Friday off. We work 80 hours in two weeks, but do it in nine days.”

Indictor said he was the lead developer, or CogE (short for cognizant engineer). He and his team worked on the software for nearly a decade, he said, developing the ground system. Many of those years were focused on testing the software, which went through many a metamorphosis.

“All those numbers that were flashing by and those two pictures that showed up when it landed on the surface – all those were processed by my software,” he said.

Indictor said he attended an event for the people who worked on the project who were not involved in the direct operation of the rover to view the landing in closed circuit in an auditorium. He is one of about 700 engineers and scientists involved in the project.

“I was on the edge of my seat,” Indictor said. “We all were. I felt very confident. I felt very confident in my software and I knew the engineers on the project also felt very confident.”

The one-ton rover touched down onto Mars Sunday after a 36-week flight and began a two-year investigation, according to NASA's website. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.

With the successful landing of the rover, Indictor can focus on his side gig, part of his life since he was 7 when he took violin lessons.

“I was a typical classical musician and I don't know, I got bored with it in my teens and let it go,” he said. “I got back into it a few years later and started listening to bands like Fairport Convention (an English folk rock band from the '60s). … They played that sort of electrified version of English, Irish and Celtic music.”

That influences has stayed with Indictor and the others in the band, who he said are not “typical” bluegrass musicians. The band plays original tunes written by Carlson and Indictor described it as sounding “old-timey and bluegrass and Celtic.”

“Of course, Susie has that Appalachian, high, beautiful spread of her voice that carries the whole thing off,” he said.

For more on Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome band, visit For more on the Mars Rover, visit

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