When a problem arose shortly before the first scheduled flight of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, Ryan Stern ’99 was on the small team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena tasked with finding a fix.
“It was very scary, the thought of all this work possibly not leading to a flight,” says Stern, an electrical engineer who designed the custom digital microchips for the helicopter.
“It kind of felt like that moment from Apollo 13 where they had that catastrophic failure on the craft—Have you seen the movie?—and the engineers down on Earth have a limited amount of time,” he says. “We were just brainstorming different ideas, and people were going to the lab to test ideas on hardware that looks like the hardware that we have on Mars.”
The team found a solution—a change in the sequence of commands that avoided a possible software update—and Ingenuity rose tentatively into the thin Martian atmosphere on April 19, about a week after initially planned. The historic flight was the first of multiple and increasingly venturesome excursions following what has been called a Wright brothers moment on the red planet.
“We weren't 100 percent sure it would take off on the day it actually did,” Stern says of the first flight. “The data takes a while to come in, and it comes in a bit at a time. I couldn't wait, so I was there on my computer looking at the raw data and skipping down. I actually found one of those photos taken from the downward-facing camera showing clearly that it had taken off, and I saw that about a minute before they announced it. I was nervous, but it was super exciting once it all worked.”
Commited to Space and to KSPC
Stern arrived at JPL as an intern 25 years ago, the summer after his first year at Pomona College. He has never really left, interning each summer as he completed an undergraduate degree in physics at Pomona and a master’s in electrical engineering at UCLA before taking a full-time position at JPL.
For the same quarter-century, he also has been a dedicated DJ at college radio station KSPC Claremont 88.7 FM. It’s a run that began in 1996 just as Stern completed his first year at Pomona and will end with the final show hosted under his on-air name, Culture Drew, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 13. A fledgling reggae fan when he started, he is now deeply knowledgeable about the genre.
“A lot of people have been listening to the show for a long time,” says Stern, who has pre-recorded his shift from home during the pandemic but will drive in to the KSPC studio to do his final show live, one last time.
“My life is in a different place now. I'm married. I have two children. And, you know, I've got a job that demands a lot of time,” he says.
Since Stern announced his departure, listeners have been emailing to thank him for the show and to request songs for his final weeks. Missing the studio conversations with listeners after he began recording from home is part of what led Stern to stop spinning the turntable, so to speak—along with the commute during rush-hour traffic to do the show in studio.
“Without interacting with the listeners, you're just playing music for yourself,” Stern says. “It doesn't feel quite the same.”
His commitment has contributed to the lore of KSPC, perhaps never more so than in 2007 when he proposed on the air to his girlfriend Anna, now his wife. A video of the surprise proposal is still on YouTube.
“I had it all planned out,” says Stern, who invited Anna to come along to the studio as she often did and asked another friend to film the proposal under the guise of producing a promotional video for the station. “I had her favorite song picked out, the song by Tarrus Riley called ‘She's Royal,’” Stern says. “As a DJ, I like to mix stuff, and I had premixed so it would play part of the song and then all of a sudden, I incorporated a whole bunch of samples from various reggae songs that put together said in essence, ‘Will you marry me?’” He even found a song to sample with the name Anna in it, and his friend captured it all.
“I got it on video in all its awkwardness,” Stern says.
Liberal Arts and Engineering Combined
His varied interests are part of what drew Stern to the liberal arts community at Pomona, along with the opportunity to take classes at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), part of The Claremont Colleges consortium. As a senior, he participated in HMC’s engineering clinic, where students work to find solutions to real-world problems.
“I really loved Pomona College, but I was having trouble deciding whether I wanted to go to Pomona or go to engineering school. I made the decision the night before they were due. But I think everything told me that my experience at Pomona would be what I wanted, and in retrospect, I'm totally glad I did it, obviously. The fact that I could take classes at the other colleges and fill out my engineering experience that way was really important.”
Problem-solving and thinking outside the proverbial box are a large part of the endeavor at JPL, where Stern has served on an array of projects, including multiple Mars missions and other projects related to the International Space Station.
The scramble to make sure the Mars helicopter could fly after an issue was discovered shortly before the planned flight was an extraordinary one. Stern and some of his closest colleagues worked almost around the clock to propose fixes and present them to senior decision-makers during the day.
“In addition to that, we were working based on the time we would send data and receive data that was coming through an orbiter like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, for instance, at all hours of the day,” he says. “So one day, we might have a meeting at 2:30 in the morning because that's when the data is coming back from Mars. And then we're in a meeting for hours to go over the data and discuss the data, then we have another meeting shortly thereafter to formulate what commands we're going to send back up to the rover. I was just shifting constantly through the wee hours of the day and then we also had the meetings that were going on at all hours of the day.
“During the thick of it, even when I would sleep, I set my alarm for two hours in the future just so I could wake up long enough to check to see what meetings had been added to my calendar.”
A software update was one option. "I mean, unfortunately, the software updates are kind of the only thing we can do when it's on Mars. We can't get hands on it,” Stern says. But it turned out a change in the sequence of commands sent to Mars circumvented the problem.
“It felt like that scene from Apollo 13, where we're saying, ‘Hey, what can we repurpose and fix our problem?’ Instead of repurposing something physical, we were repurposing a command.”
The work at JPL goes on, but as of May 13, Stern will be a former reggae DJ.
“It was not an easy decision, but it's actually been a decision I've been thinking about for years, especially on days when the traffic out to Claremont would be especially bad,” he says. “Then I’d do the show and I'd have a great time and think, OK, that's why I'm doing it. But when I realized that the 25-year-anniversary is coming up I thought you know, that’s a good time.”