Feature Stories

His Hardware Is On Mars

NJIT Graduate Mike Passaretti has designed robotic instruments for several unmanned NASA missions.

When astronauts eventually set foot on Mars, they might stumble upon hardware built by Mike Passaretti. He built robots that Mars Rovers used to grind into the Martian surface and collect soil samples. And those samples are helping scientists unravel the mystery of Mars. 

After he graduated from NJIT in 2005, Passaretti was hired to work as an electrical controls engineer at Honeybee Robotics, a company that builds mechanisms for spacecraft.  During his first five years there, he worked on three NASA Mars missions: the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Phoenix Lander and the Mars Science Laboratory.  That work gave him deep satisfaction.  

“Personally, as an engineer I can’t think of anything more gratifying than to have something you worked on leave the surface of Earth, let alone to do a job on the surface of another planet,” says Passaretti, who majored in computer engineering at NJIT.

In 2009, he took on his first role as a project manager for Honeybee. He managed a team that developed a control system for robot for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Two years later, he was named Manager of Honeybee’s Robotics & Automation Technology Group, one of the company’s three divisions. He now manages two teams of engineers working on a variety of projects.

Passaretti recently enrolled in the master’s degree program in Engineering Management at NJIT -- a program he thinks will enhance his already considerable management skills. In this interview, he talks about his job and how NJIT prepared him to excel professionally.    

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Can you discuss the work you did for NASA’s Mars missions?

I briefly participated in surface operations for the Mars Exploration Rovers. My role was to support the operation of the Honeybee Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT).  The RAT is used to grind into the surface of Martian rocks and is still in use on-board the Opportunity Rover. As an electrical engineer, I was responsible for the design and electrical assembly of the Icy Soil Acquisition Device (ISAD), which was one of Honeybee’s contributions to the Phoenix Mars Lander mission.

You also worked on the Mars Science Lab.

I worked on two mechanisms for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.  The Sample Manipulation System is a carousel within the rover’s on-board laboratory.  The second mechanism is the Dust Removal Tool, which is an "end-effector" mounted on the rover’s robotic arm and is designed to clear dust off the surface of rocks.

You watched the Mars Science Lab launch. How was that?

It is a great deal of fun working on space missions. Watching the MSL launch was an experience that is hard to describe.  It's hard to look at someone with a straight face and say you've worked on hardware that is going to the surface of Mars. I eagerly await MSL's arrival on Mars, whose entry, descent and landing is scheduled for August 2012.

In general do you like your job?

I’m one of the few people who I know who looks forward to getting up and going to work in the morning.  I’ve felt this way for seven years now and I hope it’s a feeling that never goes away.  The best part of my job is working hands on with hardware that is making history.  The day the first human steps foot on Mars, there will be some dusty hardware waiting on the surface that I helped get there.

Did your NJIT education prepare you to work at Honeybee?

Honeybee is a small company in midtown Manhattan that does advanced engineering. So as soon as I started I was thrown into some advanced electrical engineering projects.  All the science, math and engineering classes I took at NJIT prepped me well and gave me a great foundation. 

You now manage projects. Does your engineering education help you manage?

It goes without saying that I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t pursued a degree in engineering.  However, I feel strongly that the degree was just the first step. If obtaining an engineering degree did anything, it helped me prove to myself what my capabilities were.  Having recently moved into a management role, I recognize that I could again benefit from another degree.  For this reason I’ve recently enrolled in the master’s degree program in Engineering Management at NJIT.  I’m looking forward to where this takes me.

(By Robert Florida)