On Monday, at 12:31 a.m., Central Daylight Time, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which was launched from Cape Canaveral in November 2011, is scheduled to land on Mars.
It’s a proud moment for Baton Rouge, whose native son Keith Comeaux is team chief for cruise/engineering operations and flight director for the landing.
Comeaux admits to being a little nervous but very excited. Besides getting married to wife Cecilia and having children, twins Evie and Max, “this is the most exciting event in my life,” he said.
Years of preparation and testing have gone into Curiosity’s flight, which is supported by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The work is done. Now the landing is on autopilot.
“My job is kind of like a symphony director. It’s kind of like waving the baton,” Comeaux said. “The sheet music is written and practiced. With the actual landing, there is very little we can do in real time because of the distance between Earth and Mars. Now we’re mostly going to watch.”
Curiosity is NASA’s fourth rover. The first, Mars Pathfinder, landed July 4, 1997. It was about the size of a microwave. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, each a little smaller than a golf cart, landed in 2004.
“Spirit and Opportunity were designed to last 90 days,” Comeaux said. “Opportunity is still working today, still doing science.”
About 200 pounds of scientific equipment have been loaded onto Curiosity, which at 2,000 pounds is five times bigger than previous rovers. “Taking a science lab with us is cheaper than bringing a Mars rock back to Earth,” Comeaux said.
Curiosity’s lab will be able to check the mineralogy of rocks on Mars, whether they were formed by water or by volcanic activity or in other ways. “It can detect organic molecules,” Comeaux said. “This could be an important clue that life could have existed on Mars.”
The Rover contains 17 different cameras that should be able to deliver some fantastic images. The cameras will help NASA scientists guide the rover after it has landed. Two high-definition stereo cameras can take images fast enough to put a movie together.
Even as a young child, Comeaux was interested in airplanes and space. NASA was finishing up with the Apollo missions when he was about 5. “These were very inspirational to me as a kid,” he said.
He attended St. Thomas More and graduated from Catholic High School in 1985. “I knew then that I had a proclivity for math and science,” he said. “Early in high school, I knew I wanted to be a space engineer.”
Comeaux attended LSU on a full scholarship and graduated with degrees in mechanical engineering and physics. “LSU gave me a very good foundation,” he said.
For graduate school, he chose Stanford, partly for its location “next door to the NASA Ames Research Center,” he said. With a full scholarship, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in aeronautics and astronautics. His dissertation work received an award given by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for the best thermodynamics paper in 1996.
In 1995, at the time Comeaux completed his studies, the space industry was undergoing serious cutbacks. “So I took a left turn and went into satellite engineering,” said Comeaux, who went to work for Hughes Space & Communications as a spacecraft systems engineer building communications satellites. “It was a very different path than I expected, but it turned out to be a good one,” he said.
He joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2006 as the verification and validation lead for Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing phase. That year, he also completed his executive MBA at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business.
In 2008, he moved to the assembly, test and launch operation. “That’s when I began working and leading the team to put together and test the rover and the capsule that rover rides in and its cruise stage,” he said.
Last year, Comeaux spent five months in Florida getting the rover ready for its launch in November. For the past eight months, he has served as flight director.
Keith Comeaux’s father, Dr. Bobby Comeaux, said his son was always a bright child but he had no idea how smart he was until he received every award at his eighth-grade graduation from St. Thomas More. He wasn’t just smart in academic subjects. “He was good in sports. He played baseball and ran track,” Bobby Comeaux said.
Keith Comeaux’ mother, Patricia Comeaux, said her son has always been fascinated with flight. He spent hours making model planes. “For his high school graduation, we gave him the money to take pilot lessons,” she said. “It’s always been flight, flight, flight.”
And space also fascinated him. As a boy, Keith Comeaux would set his alarm to get up in the middle of the night to watch NASA liftoffs. “He got up several nights in a row to watch the Challenger. It kept being postponed,” Bobby Comeaux said.
The morning the Challenger exploded, Keith Comeaux had overslept and missed the liftoff. When his father woke him up to tell him about the accident, the young boy said, “I was afraid of that.”
Keith Comeaux said he is excited to be representing Louisiana at Curiosity’s landing. He feels such a strong connection to the river that he has been involved with during its assembly, test and launch.
“When it was first turned on, when it opened its eyes for the first time, I was there,” he said. “I have seen it come a long way.”
Curiosity’s life on Mars is just beginning. “It really is a culmination. There is not much we can do now. We have given it everything it needs,” Comeaux said.