In Memoriam: Jake Matijevic .....
Mars rover engineers and scientists lost a colleague, mentor, and friend when Jacob "Jake" Matijevic passed away August 20 in his home in Los Angeles. The world lost one of the original Mars rover pioneers. He was 64.
The news hit hard, especially within the ranks of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) teams.
A systems engineer at JPL, Jake devoted much of his life's work at the Lab helping to create robots for NASA that could rove around on Mars, and knowing every last little detail about how they worked. He was a trusted and respected peer among his colleagues, a mentor to younger engineers, and "a really nice guy who was more interested in others than himself," as one of his fellow engineers put it, something of a rarity in today's self-aggrandizing world.
Integral in the MER project, Jake probably had a lot more to do with the rovers becoming the Spirit and Opportunity we know and love than most people realize. He was assigned to MER following his work as the manager for the Microrover Flight Experiment – or in other words as the project manager for the first U.S. Mars rover, Sojourner – the microwave-sized robot delivered to the Red Planet's surface by Pathfinder in 1997. He was on the first team that wrote up the initial MER proposal. He was there as the proposal was accepted by NASA, through the Administrator's decision to make one rover two, and in deep during the lightning fast years of development. He was there for the "births" of Spirit and Opportunity, the launches, the landings, and six years of surface operations and exploration when he served as the chief of MER engineering . . . and beyond, even as he worked on Curiosity, because he kept coming back to check on the twin robot field geologists.
"He cared deeply about the rovers, and understood them in an integrated way with an insightful system engineer’s perspective," said Joy Crisp, of JPL, the project scientist for MER who worked with Jake since the very beginning of the project, and more recently on Curiosity. "He was cognizant of the 'bigger picture,' as well as the details."
"He was not only an excellent systems engineer, no detailed view or nuance of a system and its interrelationships escaped his attention, but he was also a mathematician extraordinaire," noted J. (Bob) Balaram, who is on the technical staff of Mobility & Robotic Systems Section at JPL.
Off the top of his head, Jake knew more about the systems and inner workings of Spirit and Opportunity than perhaps anybody, and whether you were a colleague, team member, or journalist, if you had a question about the engineering, how something worked, or the health status of Spirit or Opportunity, Jake was the man with the answers.
"Jake was the 'go to guy' for detailed information about the MERs and their operation," remembered Arvidson, "a complete gentleman, always kind and patient with science team members."
Throughout the years, Jake also served as a member of or consultant to the "A" or anomalies teams that formed when something untoward or confounding happened, and later on review committees who advised on plans for risky, tricky, or rover saving maneuvers.
"He knew everything about Spirit and Opportunity," said Bill Nelson, who took over the post of MER engineering team chief in October 2008 when Jake was re-assigned to what would be his final role on the MSL / Curiosity mission.
Born November 3, 1947, Jake was the first of four children blessed to the late Jacob and Helen (Nastav) Matijevic, in Chicago, Illinois, according to an obituary that ran in the Chicago Tribune August 31st. He grew up in the Chicago area, received a BS in mathematics from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1969, then went on to the University of Chicago, where he earned an MS in 1970, and PhD in mathematics in 1973.
After accepting and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky, Jake landed an assistant professorship in mathematics at the University of Southern California. A few short years later, in 1981, he traded academia for JPL.
Here in Southern California, Jake distinguished himself with the Matijevic Theorem, described as "one of the most beautiful results in recent years in communicative algebra and some of its consequences," first published in "Lectures on the Asymptotic Theory of Ideals", London Mathematical Society Lecture Note Series 113, by the Press Syndicate of University of Cambridge in 1988. The ensuing decade would take him to Mars.
By 2000, Jake was working on the genesis of Spirit and Opportunity and his life all but revolved around the twin robot field geologists. He would laugh sometimes, like a kid, when he talked about the rovers. He loved what he did that much. "I do this everyday," he said during one interview. "I look for information, worry about what the future holds for them, and think about what they did in the past. A substantial portion of my work life has been devoted to Spirit and Opportunity. The thing is I don't anthropomorphize in this regard. But at the same time, this is one way to spend one's life and I have been very privileged to do this.
"When I meet people and tell them what I do, I can see the thoughtfulness and the impression they have in their eyes – you know – 'you're a lucky guy.' I don't think I've ever met anyone who didn't have that feeling about this kind of work, so if I get that every couple of weeks – well, I don't have any questions about whether I did the right thing with my life."
Jake's ability to teach was evident in every conversation and through the years he was always there for the MER Update. In person and on the phone, he was quiet, somewhat effacing, and noticeably private. It took a while for him to feel comfortable talking casually with a journalist, but when the late afternoon musings emerged, they were always rich with insight and often revealed how in tune he was with the zeitgeist.
As time passed, Jake, who didn’t like to anthropomorphize, finally did, and we shared many conversations about Spirit's and Opportunity's distinctive personalities. More importantly he seemed to grok early on that these two rovers represent far more than robot field geologists made of composite materials, glass and mirrors, wires, circuit boards, rocker bogies and aluminum wheels, and he contemplated the greater meaning of the rovers over the years . . . how they transcended boundaries . . . and how they roved not only into human consciousness, but into our human souls.
"Spirit and Opportunity are a combination of science fiction becoming science fact, I think, and the notion that maybe this – they – are another way to look at how humans project themselves into an alien environment," he said one night. "These rovers are giving people insight into a place that they will never have a chance to see for themselves on their own, or in any other fashion than this, in their lifetime. So the worldwide attention, the affection have come from having something else, something new, something incredibly different and amazing to give us input."
There's a saying that no one goes into space alone and that's as true a statement as statements can get. But in no small measure, we have, the world has Jake Matijevic to thank for that something incredibly different and amazing that came to be Spirit and Opportunity. He is, as many colleagues have said, deeply missed.
Jake passed away after a life-long battle with asthma and other upper respiratory illnesses, according to the Chicago Tribune obituary. He is survived by his mother and his sisters, Maryhelen of Chicago, Patricia of Loveland, Colorado; and brother, Paul (and Judith Wolf) of Park Ridge, Illinois.