Terry Himes is a Michigan native who has gone a long way since his mid-state childhood — all the way to Mars, in fact. He helped put the Perseverance Mars rover on the Red Planet in February as part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team in Pasadena, California, where he holds the title of ground data systems I&T lead engineer.
The Michigan State University alum tells Hour Detroit about the “terror” of landing a craft on another planet, how a kid who didn’t like science fiction ended up at NASA, and how (safely) launching mice in model rockets as a kid started him on his scientific journey.
Hour Detroit: Has the MSU-U-M rivalry really gone interstellar?
Terry Himes: The rivalry found its way all the way to JPL. We have a lot of people from Michigan. A few people are Spartans, of course, and a few people are from the University of Michigan. Most of the guys that I work with, they’re football fans just like I was when I lived in on-campus housing a stone’s throw from the football field. [During football season] I take off my JPL lanyard and I wear my MSU Spartan lanyard, and they wear their Wolverine lanyards. We’re all teammates, and we’re working on the same missions together, so it’s a lot of fun.
Tell us about your path from being a Grand Ledge, Michigan, kid in the 1960s to JPL.
I started shooting rockets up in my backyard. I decided I needed more space, so I went to the big open field behind the high school and started shooting rockets. Two of my friends were taking biology at the time and doing these experiments on mice, and they said we should combine the two and start shooting the mice in the rockets. My part of that, sort of an engineering part, was to keep the mice safe, of course, and then they would be running tests before and after the flight. I wanted to work for NASA because at the time Gemini and Apollo were just starting up, and it was just an exciting time in America in general. Everybody was really excited about what we were doing in space, and I said, “Well, that’s where I want to be.” So my goal from a very early age was to work for NASA.
Your job title is complicated. What do you do?
I’m in the mission planning and sequencing area. These are part of the teams that actually build the commands that we actually send to the spacecraft.
When Perseverance landed, what was the mood like at JPL?
Landings are always exciting. Any event, actually, is exciting, whether it’s launch, landing, or flyby of a comet. The landing is called “seven minutes of terror” because there’s really not much communication as it’s going through the atmosphere, and the landing has to be all automated.
Where were you at that time? The mission control room?
I was not in the main room. The people that you see on camera are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of people and a lot of different rooms, different buildings. I monitored from a different building.
What was the mood around you during descent?
You have to remember these projects take 10 years to get to where they’re going, from development to that point. So, yeah, it’s very tense and then once the landing happened, a lot of release. You can see it on camera. I mean, people just literally jump up and scream. It’s just a feeling of total relief that everything worked and now you’re on the surface. It’s a huge, huge, huge accomplishment.
Are you a science-fiction fan? Did it inspire your path at all?
Oddly, no. I wasn’t a real big science-fiction fan growing up, so it didn’t really play much of a role. It is funny that, when I joined JPL, I gave presentations on the history of JPL and how science fiction actually played a role back in those days and in the 1930s when kids were doing the same thing I was doing: shooting rockets up. They were actually shooting rockets up in the Arroyo Seco, a canyon in Pasadena where JPL is now.
What does sci-fi get right — or wrong — about space?
We have to use our imagination to inspire and get ourselves to the next level, but the reality is, it’s much harder than that. So when you see those things, you read about those things, to me it makes it sound very simple, but in reality, it takes thousands and thousands of dedicated scientists and engineers to actually make something happen.
Now that you’ve been to Mars, what’s your next destination?
We have probably about 30 flying missions at JPL, and those missions and flight operations are very active. I’m on several of them: the Trace Gas Orbiter, which is another Mars space probe. I’m also working on the startup of Psyche, a probe which is going to an all-metal asteroid. I even worked on Juno, a Jupiter space probe, for a while.
You turned 72 this year. Where do you get the energy to keep doing this?
There are so many inspirational things that are going on at JPL on a daily and weekly basis. It’s just fun and exciting, so I think that keeps you going and keeps your mind going and keeps you sharp. That’s for sure, because you have to stay on top of things all the time.