‘A lot of steps, a long journey’ from Altoona to Mars
Altoona native played instrumental role in rover landing
Dan Burkhart wakes up every day excited to go to work, even after 25 years.
The Altoona native’s job doesn’t just contribute to the world; it extends to worlds apart from our own — as far as nearly 140 million miles away.
Burkhart is a NASA scientist who played an instrumental role in the recent landing of Perseverance on Mars, a mission that seeks to return samples of the Red Planet to Earth.
He and his team of 25 are exploring the habitability of the planet to determine whether it once harbored life. The landing of Perseverance, he said, is forwarding this quest for the answer.
“We have taken a huge step to potentially answering the question,” Burkhart said. “That doesn’t sound at first like something that’s relevant to most but would be a fundamental change to our understanding of our very existence if proven true.”
On Feb. 18, the rover touched down on the planet’s Jezero Crater, where it will collect geological samples, which will help scientists search for evidence of ancient life.
The car-sized Perseverance is equipped with 19 cameras that help the rover drive and collect samples.
Burkhart led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing flight dynamics team. He began working on Perseverance in 2012 after the preceding Curiosity landing.
Raised on farm
Before stepping onto one of the biggest world stages in science, Burkhart began his journey on Sugar Run Road, where he was raised on a farm with his three siblings.
“We grew up without a lot of material things and a lot of hand-me-downs, but both parents worked full time and sacrificed tremendously to help us all go to college,” he said.
It was school where Burkhart “really got bitten by the space bug,” he said.
He fondly remembers “a wonderful Smithsonian space encyclopedia” that he got for his birthday in seventh grade. It remains a treasure to him “despite the cover falling off and the pages coming apart,” he said.
The 1985 Bishop Guilfoyle High School alumnus went on to West Virginia University for his undergraduate degree.
He was specifically interested in one area of science, which helped pave his path to a career in his current field.
“The one that drew me was guidance and control, which in its most basic form involves making sure a vehicle can turn and move reliably how we want it to,” Burkhart, 54, said. “It seemed like magic to me at the time and I had to know how it worked.”
After graduating from WVU, Burkhart was at a crossroads.
“A big decision point in my senior year of college was whether to move to the workforce or continue in school and get an advanced degree,” he said. “There was not one answer, but multiple valid options that (needed) to be evaluated.”
‘Made my own luck’
Burkhart decided on grad school, making the next stop of his journey at The University of Texas at Austin. There, he zeroed in on his passion, delving into a more specific focus.
“I wanted to do ‘controls’ as I called it at the time, and eventually specialized in estimation and filtering the ‘N’ in guidance, navigation and control (GNC),” he said.
In grad school, Burkhart had a unique opportunity that prepared him for his career, an experience he remembers fondly.
“I had a wonderful opportunity to be a ‘no-fee consultant’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., working with the folks who do ground navigation for, at the time, every deep-space unmanned spacecraft that the U.S. ever flew,” he said. “Many people would consider this luck, but I made my own luck by working hard and choosing something I enjoyed doing.”
After earning his Ph.D., Burkhart began his career with NASA in ground navigation.
After “multiple projects and development tasks” in that area, he took the reins as leader of the JPL side of the Entry, Descent and Landing flight dynamics task for The Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity landing mission.
“That was a significant leap into the unknown for me,” he said. “The rest is history.”
No small feat
Burkhart gained a wealth of experience from his work with the Curiosity landing in 2012 and was able to translate that experience into the Perseverance project, which he began working on later that year.
Even amid the challenges posed by COVID-19, he and his colleagues were determined.
“Perseverance was my third lander project, but for my JPL teammates it was their first flight project,” Burkhart said. “Working through the pandemic made things in some ways a lot harder since we can’t meet in person, but we were able to make this work because of the dedication of my team.”
The Entry, Descent and Landing work that Burkhart and his team did during the Perseverance project was no small feat. The process, he said, is known as the “seven minutes of terror.”
There is a lot of work that goes into carrying out this daunting task, and there’s one key tool, he said, that facilitates this process.
“We have a highly detailed computer simulation that models Perseverance itself, along with the Mars atmosphere and topography, and use that to show how EDL will work,” Burkhart said. “My team (handles) the final late parameter updates, which tell the vehicle its position and velocity at the start of EDL. So, my team is responsible for creating the last values that are passed to the spacecraft before it enters the atmosphere.”
The implications of this project for the future of Mars exploration are huge.
According to Burkhart, the results signify monumental progress and Perseverance is paving the way for even more improvements.
“The bar will continue to rise in the future, as we are already talking about the next lander that will be used to collect the samples and how to do things better,” he said. “They likely will outstrip what we did for Perseverance, as we were able to surpass the level of modeling and analysis we had for Curiosity’s landing in 2012.”
And in the aftermath of the landing, Burkhart and his team are learning a lot.
“We are still gathering detailed data on what happened,” he said. “One thing I saw right away is that we didn’t land exactly on our target. We ended up a little farther East than the center of our predicted landing area, so right off we got the poke in the ribs telling us there’s still a lot we don’t know.”
Despite not having all the answers, Burkhart is in awe of what he and his team accomplished. He recalled the moment Perseverance landed and said he’s still trying to process it weeks after the fact.
“Once the ‘touchdown confirmed’ call was made, my emotions were a mix of sheer joy and relief that all our work paid off with a successful landing,” he said. “The full impact of this journey for me has not really sunken in yet.”
In wake of his success, Burkhart reflected on his journey from central Pennsylvania to now and said it shaped how he thinks about from whence he came.
“Looking back, there were a lot of steps and a long journey of expanding horizons,” he said. “I started off growing up on a farm without a lot of neighbors, to an elementary school with about 30 other kids in my class. From there, moving on to a ‘huge’ class of 140 other students in my high school. Taking the huge step of moving away from home to go to college and finally moving to the Los Angeles area to work at a world-class organization like JPL. All the way from thinking my grandmother lived ‘far away’ in central Altoona to knowing people who literally came from all over the world is a huge change in perspective.”
Burkhart hopes to be an example for young Altoona scientists after him.
“My hope,” he said, “is that people ask ‘if this guy can do this, why can’t I?’ If I can motivate someone, young or old, to follow their dreams then that would be satisfying. I am proof that you don’t have to have a specific background or be born into privilege to contribute.”