Mars Mission: Aerospace expert Robert Lampereur '85 shares insights into latest NASA exploration

Author: Linda Spice '89, M.Ed '19

Published Date: 4/2/2021

Categories: Alumni Computer Science


Alumnus Robert Lampereur '85

Robert Lampereur '85 had always been a reader of futurists like Isaac Asimov so when he graduated from Carroll, he sought out work in the aerospace industry. The idea of working on projects that sent both people and robots into space excited him and his career and aspirations landed him on teams that worked on both the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler Space Telescope programs. He retired in 2015 as chief software engineer and staff consultant from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. after 30 years of experience in aerospace. Post-retirement, he’s back at work in the field today, now working as principal systems engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space in Aurora, Colorado.

Now with the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover looking for signs of past microbial life, we learn more about Rob’s expertise in the aerospace industry and tap into his knowledge about this latest space mission and ask what it might mean in preparing for future human exploration. Here, Rob shares his written thoughts and images to help illustrate a lifelong fascination with space.

What was the catalyst that first sparked your interest in space exploration?

I am old enough to remember the Apollo missions that took humans into space, and I know it sounds cliché, but the moment Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the Moon sparked something in me that is still with me. I was quite young at the time, but I still remember watching the Apollo missions on our old black and white TV. Even as a child I understood how momentous it was, and the wonder of that time has never left me.

And to be even more cliché, I was a big fan of Star Trek as a child. I remember watching it on Sunday afternoons. At the time it seemed truly futuristic, and I couldn’t imagine human beings like me traveling across the universe. I also loved reading science fiction books. I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and finding it difficult to put them down. In my mind I could vividly see the worlds he created, and it fascinated me. I think the combination of science fiction and the reality of the Apollo missions sparked something in me that led me to working in aerospace.

The Earthrise photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts fascinated Lampereur as a child.

How did you build that interest while you were at Carroll?

The thing that drew me to Carroll College was their computer science program. I developed an interest in programming in high school where we had one Apple II computer that was shared among all students. Fortunately for me, there were only a couple people in my entire high school who had any interest in computers, so I was able to use it whenever I wanted. I wrote my first computer program and I was hooked. When I toured Carroll College in the spring of 1981, I saw their brand new computer lab in the basement of Old Main and it looked so amazing to me. I knew that was where I needed to be. Though I didn’t specifically connect my interest in space with programming computers at the time, I knew I wanted to be a scientific programmer and solve technical problems.

What path did you take after Carroll to follow your passion for the aerospace industry?

As graduation approached in the spring of 1985, I took a trip with the Computer Science Department headed by Dr. Jerry Issacs to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) convention in New Orleans. This was a great opportunity for computer science students to see what was going on in the industry, plus we were able to interview with hiring managers for real jobs after graduation. I interviewed with a manager from Lockheed Missiles & Space who told me there were two basic career paths (you guessed it): missiles or space. Naturally, I wanted to follow the space path! In September 1985 I started work for Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California on my first satellite program writing onboard software. (I have to credit both Carroll College and Dr. Jerry Isaacs for that opportunity. I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had without it.)

I worked for four years in Sunnyvale developing new satellite systems before taking a position at a military base in Germany (still working for Lockheed) supporting operational satellite and ground systems. I worked for almost six years in Germany just as the Berlin Wall was coming down and the country was reunifying. I couldn’t believe my great fortune. I had a great job doing what I loved while learning a new language and a new culture just as history was being made. Who could ask for more than that?

Typical image taken with NICMOS. It shows the Orion Nebula on the left as seen by Hubble's visible light camera compared to NICMOS's ability to see through the nebula's heavy clouds of dust and gas, Lampereur tells us.

Your work with Lockheed Martin and the Hubble Space Telescope program involved creation of a new camera that would be installed during a Space Shuttle Servicing Mission. What was your most rewarding accomplishment during that experience?

When I decided it was time to come home, I looked for a job with Lockheed back in the U.S. and I came across an internal posting for software work on the new cameras for the Hubble Space Telescope. I was very excited at the prospect but wasn’t sure I’d be lucky enough to get that particular job. Good fortune smiled on me. It was my old boss from California who was hiring for the position. He knew my abilities and offered me the job. I was ecstatic! The work was located in Boulder, Colorado so I packed my belongings and made the big move in the spring of 1994.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, but there was a flaw in the primary mirror which meant that the onboard cameras could not take clear pictures. The new cameras to be installed during a future Space Shuttle Servicing Mission would correct the optical problem (like getting a new pair of glasses) and add new research capabilities.

I worked on the flight software development team for the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS for short), which added infrared imaging capabilities. Infrared was important because it allowed us to see through gas and dust that blocks visible light meaning we can see more of the universe. It also allowed us to see more distant objects that would help us understand how the universe was formed. This was some very heady stuff! I still remember the day I saw the first picture taken by the NICMOS cameras in the local newspaper. The thing I had spent three years working on was sending amazing pictures from space. It was like a dream come true. And while I got used to seeing amazing pictures from Hubble over the years, I never forgot seeing that first picture.

There are numerous websites where you can learn about NICMOS:
https://esahubble.org/about/general/instruments/nicmos/
http://hubble.stsci.edu/the_telescope/nuts_.and._bolts/instruments/nicmos/

When you led the fault protection effort for the Kepler Space Telescope program for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the mission was to search for habitable planets in other solar systems that were light years away from our own. Tell me a little bit about your role in the program.

Fault protection refers to the systems that protect a satellite in the event a problem occurs in orbit. Since the Kepler Space Telescope would be orbiting much farther away from Earth than traditional satellites to collect the data required to find habitable planets in other solar systems, it was critical that the spacecraft be able to protect itself. I led the development team that created these protection systems for the Kepler spacecraft. We worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to design and build the hardware and software to do this. Fortunately, the systems worked as expected once Kepler was put into space in 2009. It went on to operate for 9 years discovering thousands of new planets. In addition to working on Hubble, the Kepler program represents one of my proudest achievements.

With all your interest and experience in space exploration, what insights can you share about the 2020 Mars Mission Perseverance Rover and what the project might mean for future human exploration of the planet?

I think the Perseverance rover is aptly named because it takes many years of hard work and dedication to get anything into space, let alone a rover that can travel across the surface of Mars. I have been involved in small ways with past Mars missions, so it is exciting to see that work continue. While specific missions are always exciting and interesting, I think the arc of exploration those missions achieve is what is truly exciting. With each mission we learn more and more, and we can apply that knowledge to future missions. I think Perseverance is an important link in a chain of exploration that will inevitably lead to humans walking on the surface of Mars someday. I just hope I’m alive to see it!

Why is this type of exploration necessary and important to the rest of us living back here on Earth?

I think the missions to Mars, such as Perseverance along with its predecessors and successors, are like Apollo was for me as a child and the Hubble Space Telescope was for the generation after me. Humans are explorers; we always have been and we always will be. Missions like this ignite our imaginations and give us hope for a better future. They help create the next generation of scientists and engineers that will make the next big discovery in medicine or the next technological breakthrough in clean energy. We need missions like this to keep our dreams alive.

What do you think or hope will come out of the Mars mission? 

I would love to see conclusive evidence showing life existed (or still exists?) on Mars. Obviously, that would be microbial life, but the idea that another planet in our solar system could support life would be transformational to our thinking about ourselves and our place in the universe.

I also hope what we learn from Mars shows us how precious our planet Earth is, and that we have a responsibility to protect and preserve it for future generations. Perhaps if we better understand how Mars came to be as it is, we can learn from that to protect our own planet.

One of the reasons I love science so much is that it challenges our thinking and forces us to keep looking forward.

So you retired as Chief Software Engineer and Staff Consultant from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in 2015. What brought you back from retirement to take the position in 2020 as Principal Systems Engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space in Aurora, Colorado? 

There were several things that brought me back into the aerospace industry. The first was that I genuinely love working in aerospace. There is always something new to do or discover. After working as an independent consultant for the past few years I thought I would enjoy being part of something more permanent. I was interested in Raytheon primarily because they work on ground systems, whereas most of my career has been working on satellites. I really wanted to learn more about these systems and how they support the larger missions.

What would you like to explore next?

I have been giving this question a lot of thought as of late. I have so many things that I still want to learn, discover, experience, and accomplish, but I realize that unlike the universe, my time is finite. I know I want to stay involved with aerospace in some capacity, but exactly what that looks like I don’t know yet. I do know I am excited about what the future holds…whatever that might be.

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