Coding Brings Mars Data Down to Earth

Posted on Thu, March 15, 2018
  • by: Hillary Brady, Digital Experiences

When NASA’s Curiosity rover uses its robotic arm to snap a selfie on the surface of Mars, how does that picture get back to Earth? It’s thanks to programmers like Melody Ho, with the Mars Public Engagement Group. Ho is a full-stack developer for NASA’s Mars websites, mobile sites, and apps.

“This means that I get all the content online,” she said.  “I publish information for our missions and develop data pipelines to distribute spacecraft data and imagery to online applications useable for the public.” Her work makes sure that the breakthrough discoveries taking place on Mars everyday make their way back to NASA—and onto your smartphone.

Before she begain working at NASA, though, she was just a kid working on examples in a basic HTML book and tracking down Carmen Sandiego on a computer game. Now, from her desk at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ho reflects on her start as a programmer and shares some insight for the next generation of women in space and technology.

Curiosity's Selfie

The “selfie” was created using several images taken by the MAHLI camera on the Curiosity rover’s arm on August 5, 2015. The arm isn’t in the image.

Your job sounds really interesting! What do you like most about it?

What I enjoy is programming code to make things more efficient, to work smarter, and not harder. That’s what I love about technology, and that's what I always adapt to my work.

Some of the projects that I work on are behind-the-scenes, but still important. I engineer automatic processes that are seamless to the end-user. For example: when NASA's Curiosity rover takes a photo, it has a long way to go before you actually see it online. The image data must travel millions of miles from Mars to Earth and then travel through pre-programmed data pipelines so that we can almost instantly enjoy the magnificent discoveries (and view them on our phones and computers). I work with teams to engineer the process that streamlines the data coming from Mars and publish it directly on the NASA Mars website. Having a role that enables the public to see sights from another planet makes my job really rewarding.

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on with NASA?

Yes, most definitely! The most fun projects are the ones that reach millions of people, to get them excited and interested in the exploration of Mars.

One of the projects I get to work on periodically, before launches, is called “Send Your Name to Mars.” Anyone can sign-up to get his or her name etched onto a microchip that will travel to Mars on the next spacecraft launch. It's a fun way for our team to raise awareness about what’s happening with NASA’s Mars exploration projects. It also engages millions of people; it makes them part of the journey and gives them a way to leave their very own mark on the spacecraft. I love helping to make that happen.

NASA programmer Melody Ho with the ROV-E robot

NASA programmer Melody Ho working at Explore JPL with the ROV-E. Credit: Melody Ho

What inspired you to become a programmer?

The first time I used a computer I was in first grade, when our teacher asked us to “write” or “draw” our names with a computer mouse. It was an antique Macintosh, with a 3 ½-inch floppy disk insert at the front of the monitor. I thought that was pretty neat at the time, since we had only just learned handwriting on paper. Touchscreens, tablets, and smart phones weren't around yet!

Growing up, my parents would often take me to a computer store. I remember looking forward to playing different computer games in the kid's area, like “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” and “Math Blaster." Computer labs and classes in my school weren’t introduced until I was in sixth grade and because I was introduced to computers early, I found myself doing well.

Since I was often on the computer at home, my dad challenged me to learn something new. When I was about 11, he handed me a short paperback book on how to code in HTML. I had no idea what HTML was at the time, but it had pictures and examples of how to code and seemed very easy to follow. I didn’t know it then, but from that day forward I became interested in programming. I found it amazing that I could simply write code, to make the computer do what I instructed it to do. With a few simple keystrokes, I was able to change background colors, add images, and manipulate text colors and sizes, even making objects move and interact – it all seemed pretty fascinating.

What did you study in school?

At my high school, there were not a lot of options for different computer classes. So I took extracurricular classes to learn new computer software and programming on my own, just for fun. At the time, I was considering a career in computer games because I thought that’s what most programmers did for a living. I really didn't know then that there were so many more opportunities available for programming, or about the importance of technology.

In college I decided to study what I enjoyed doing and knew I had an interest in – business and technology. I got an undergraduate degree in Business Administration B.S. Computer Information Systems at Cal Poly Pomona. I loved that I could understand the business and project management aspects and build something that would improve or even create a business.  I never dreamed of being able to find a career that would match up perfectly with my other interests, too: learning about space and sharing that with others around me.

Programmer Melody Ho standing inside mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

Programmer Melody Ho inside mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. Credit: Melody Ho

What advice would you give to young people interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

Be open to new opportunities, and don’t be scared to try new things. New opportunities come up every day and you’ll never know if you'll enjoy it until you try. It’s also good to challenge yourself from time to time! Sometimes you really do have to fail in order to succeed. If you do feel like you've failed at anything, don't feel discouraged, and just learn from your mistakes to get you one step closer to succeeding.

Technology is always changing. Don’t be worried if you don’t know everything because “everything” is constantly changing. Keep developing your basic skills and keep learning new things. It becomes easier if you’re open and willing to learn and adapt.