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The Mars Curiosity Family – The Oh Family on Mars Time

Bay Area Mama Stephanie contributes this fantastic interview with the Oh Family

I grew up in Cupertino, California. It was a mentally invigorating place to live. There were so many smart engineers, and doing well in school was something that permeated our community. I recall it also wasn’t as jam-packed full of people then as it is now. When I was in high school our family got to know the David and Bryn Oh family from our neighborhood. I still remember when they had their first baby. David is Korean-American, and Bryn has gorgeous red hair. You would think, based on those Gregor Mendel charts we studied in high school science on dominant vs. recessive genes that well, they would have dark-haired babies. Instead, when their oldest son, Braden was born he had light tufts of red hair. It was adorable.

All photos from Braden’s MarsTimr Blog

David and Bryn fit into the Bay Area perfectly. Both were educated at MIT. Both also musically talented. I remember hearing them sing together. Both crazy smart, and David was a bonafide rocket scientist. I always knew he’d be the only real-life rocket scientist I’d ever know. I also, tend to use the saying, “well, it’s not rocket science…” For David, it was, and still is.

David is a NASA engineer and the lead flight director on the Curiosity mission. Bryn is a software training consultant, and mother extraordinaire – together they have three kids: Braden (13), Ashlyn (10), and Devyn (8). What makes the Oh family particularly unique, is that when David had to switch his life over to Mars time, for his job manning the Curiosity rover, Bryn signed on to have the entire family join the time switch.

In fact, type in “Mars Time Family” into your google search box and you’ll instantly find articles, interviews, and more about the fabulous Oh family.

Switching the family on Mars time was not an easy task. A Martian day, or Sol, is about 40 minutes longer every day. The Oh family has described it like jumping a time zone each day, so it’s like feeling jet-lagged, often. Bryn had to make sure to keep spread sheets, and schedule appointments on a constantly shifting time zone. Since the family would be awake at night, they were able to explore LA when most people rarely get to see it. Their fun adventures are captured on Braden’s blog. This summer, the Oh family took as close to a vacation on Mars, as possible, here on earth. After all, LA at night, can be otherworldly.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryn for TodaysMama.com. I love Bryn’s perspective as a mom who loves science, math, and creating. I love her views on dreaming big, on how science, while fun, is still just a tool, and continues to evolve constantly. I know you’ll find them as brilliant, cool, and fascinating as I do.

Q1: Six years ago, did you have any idea of how big-of-a-deal, and how cool Curiosity would be? Your kids were at completely different stages of their life.

Yes and no.

I knew Curiosity was so much more incredible than any other spacecraft we have ever sent beyond Earth. I remember David coming home early on and shaking his head at the complexity of the schematics he was working on. I knew it had a laser that was going to zap rocks. I knew the EDL (entry, descent, and landing) plan included a freaking sky crane and told him then it would never land — far too many things to go wrong.

I hoped it would get as much attention as MER (Spirit and Opportunity). I was afraid it wouldn’t. Subsequent moon landings weren’t as exciting.

I was blown away with how the world actually responded. Did you know the landing was played live on national networks in multiple countries, including China, even if it wasn’t played live in the United States? David has given interviews as far away as Britain, Korea, and New Zealand. I am unbelievably excited that millions of people around the world have watched Curiosity land. I’ve found nothing rivals the space program in exciting kids to study math and science, to dream big and decide that not even the sky is a limit. That excitement, those dreams, can fuel an entire generation who may or may not even choose space as a career. If we show our children that working together we can land a 1-ton SUV with a trunk full of lab equipment on another planet, then we can solve any problem here on Earth!

And yes, it’s been a huge change over the six years. My littlest (Devyn) hadn’t even been born when Spirit & Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004. Two years later daddy was working on Curiosity. Six years ago I had only one child in elementary school. One was in preschool and one was in diapers. Now my youngest will be learning cursive and my oldest is only one year away from high school. My kids have certainly grown up with Curiosity.

Q2: What ages/grades are the kids now? What are their favorite subjects, hobbies, interests? Have they changed since the Curiosity? What do they aspire to do?

Braden is 13, and in eighth grade. He likes math and science. He is an amazing magician, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

Ashlyn is 10, and in sixth grade. She likes math and science, but thinks social studies will be fun this year. She loves soccer and fort building, and wants to be a teacher and/or an engineer.

Devyn is 8, and in third grade. He likes computer lab in school, and is working towards his orange belt in Kempo. He wants to be a computer game designer.

Q3: What is your background? What did you study, what do you love to work on? How do you teach your kids, and what perspective do you share with them?

I have Bachelors degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Music. Now I am a Software Training Consultant. I love to teach and I love technology. I was very happy to find a career that combined getting to be as technical as I wanted with the process of translating that material to a wider audience and then teaching it.

I try to teach my kids that everything in life is science. Science is just a fancy word for playing around. One summer I bought a bunch of PVC pipes and connectors and splitters and told my kids to build cool stuff and then attach the garden hose and see what happened. I encourage creativity in the kitchen, and as a result, my Braden is a pretty good cook! And I always try to ask them “Why do you think that happened?” It’s much better for them to discover the answers than for me to hand those answers to them. I just act as their guide. And when they screw up, I ask “Did you learn anything?”

I’m also not afraid to say “I don’t know.” When you encourage kids to ask questions, they ask *a lot* of questions. The internet is my friend, and we donate regularly to Wikipedia!

I’m also adamant about teaching them the limitations of science. Science is merely the search for things which are repeatable. Using what we discover, we can create models of our world and predictions for the future. Our models are very, very good. Good enough that we can land a giant rover in a tiny circle 150 million miles away. But science changes over time, especially as our models get better. Doctors used to encourage women to smoke while they were pregnant telling them it was good to have a low birth weight baby. And people misuse science to serve their own purpose or political agenda. But that doesn’t make science “wrong”. Science is a tool and it can make our world a better place. I hope my children will decide to make this world a better place. Plus, science is just lots of fun, too!

Q4: What did David study? Is the position he’s in now, what he always wanted to do? How did this happen?

David has a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD in Aerospace Engineering. In fact, he studied propulsion and is a real rocket scientist. He also has a Bachelors in Music, like me. He has wanted to work in Aerospace since he was in high school. He just kept taking math and science classes in school and then chose to pursue engineering in college. When we first met in college, his goal was to be able to have an impact on the space program. (He doesn’t aim low!) After he got his PhD he went to work for a commercial satellite company in Northern California called Space Systems Loral. They built the satellites which bring people things like Direct TV and satellite radio. He moved to JPL 9 years ago. Curiosity has been a fantastic project to work on! But it has not met his goal. There are other really exciting missions he’s been working on in the background. They are still in early formulation and wouldn’t launch for a decade, but if one is approved, his influence and expertise will have made an impossible mission possible.

Q5: How did you two meet? I love these kinds of stories.

We met in the Music department at MIT. He was a tenor and I was an alto. We met in a little a cappella vocal ensemble that had about six people in it. We used to sing Renaissance music by composers like Victoria and Byrd. Of the core six members, four of us are married to each other.

Q6: Why did Braden decide to start his blog?

We had already done a bunch of research on Mars time by the time school ended late last spring. I wanted a way for him to document what he had done, what he had learned, and what he was about to do, and then be able to share his journey with his friends and family. I also knew he would be better about updating a blog than me. I have to admit, that as a mom I was excited for him to be doing something vaguely academic over the summer, too. So David and I discussed whether we thought he was ready and old enough for a public blog. Then we brought Braden into the discussion. I love having kids in the technological age. I helped him get started and then he just took off. He taught himself how to change themes and add counters and comments and Ask Me buttons. I love that he’s not afraid to try.

Q7: From each of you, what’s your favorite moment from this experiment, and what’s your least favorite?

Braden’s favorite: bowling as a family at four in the morning.
Braden’s least: staying awake for that last hour.

Ashyn’s favorite: Santa Monica pier at midnight.
Ashlyn’s least: also staying awake for that last hour.

Devyn’s favorite: taking walks at midnight.
Devyn’s least: going to the beach – even at midnight he still doesn’t like sand.

Bryn’s favorite, I have a couple:
1) an improv counting game we were playing when I realized just how close and in sync our family had become over the month.
2) the whole family laying out on a blanket in the Angeles Mountains at 2am looking for shooting stars during the Perseid Meteor shower.

Bryn’s least: the night before David went back on shift when we were totally inverted and I realized how isolated we were.

David couldn’t pick his favorite, either:
1) coming home at 4 AM late at night to a house full of kids who run up happy to see me.
2) sitting in control room at 3 AM looking at pictures from Mars and realizing we are the first people in the world ever to see them.
3) hearing that my son learned to ride his bike at 1 AM in an empty parking lot… and it was easy!

David’s least: trying to keep myself and kids awake at 5 AM, just before the sun came up, for the first time.

Definitely a running trend on keeping ourselves up that last hour.

Q8: I know you requested music for David on Facebook, why? What playlist did you select, and are you still taking requests? If so, how do you wan to receive them?

There is a tradition of ‘wakeup songs’ that goes all the way back to the manned missions. At JPL, the tradition goes back to Pathfinder in 1997. Each Sol, or day on Mars, Curiosity wakes up at 10am Mars time and waits for commands from Earth. The engineers in mission control play a wake up song before commanding. It’s a fun tradition. The song doesn’t actually get transmitted to Mars or played for the rover itself. The Play List for Curiosity can be found here. There are lists of the songs that were played for Spirit and Opportunity.

David is taking requests on Twitter at @marstimrdad. The best requests come from people who are following what the rover is doing and suggest appropriate songs. For example, on the first day JPL received picture confirmation that the rover was successfully driving, they played “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys. The day they first zapped a rock [N165 “Coronation”] they played “Killer Queen” by Queen. It took four days to complete the software update on the rover, as they were switching out the code for cruise operations with the code for surface operations. On the final day, day four, after the swap was complete, they played John Williams’ theme song for Star Wars, Episode 4. And after Neil Armstrong died, they played “Rocket Man” by Elton John.

Q9: How are you dealing with, adjusting to the attention paid to your family with Curiosity?

That’s a great question! And it’s a bit weird! Last time I went to JPL, Bill Nye the Science Guy stopped us and asked to take our picture. My sister in Houston said her oldest child’s teacher has read about us. But I went to a soccer meeting last weekend and no one in the room even knew we had been on Mars time. My kids say that most of the other children at school have no idea they were on the front page of the LA Times. Mostly, life hasn’t changed very much. My kids are tolerant of the media requests, but they certainly aren’t excited. I, on the other hand, am so thrilled that people all over the world care about the space program, about a rover on Mars, and are curious about what it means to go on Mars time! We were very, very surprised that our story took off. But I am thrilled to have any opportunity to get kids (or adults) excited about Mars, about space exploration, about math and science. When people dream beyond the sky, all problems look easier to solve. And even if the only thing I can teach is ‘A Martian day is longer than an Earth day’ then maybe one extra child out there will wonder why and start exploring.

Q10: Any favorite meals along the way? Treats?

I joked that my kids got more Slurpees on Mars time than they did over the rest of their lives combined. They were real pick-me-ups, in more ways than one, at 5am. (We only bought a handful, I promise!) We were surprised we ate out as much as we did. Yes, we were tired and it was nice not to cook, but more importantly, the experience of eating dinner in the middle of the night was fantastic. We met great people eating out at 3 and 4 and 5 in the morning. I am most proud of the Gale Crater cake I made a few days after landing. I went to my friend at the local cake decorating store with topological maps and color pictures of the landing site, and he spoke with me for a very long time on how to construct this “mountain inside a crater” cake. He even helped me color match my frosting to the pictures. My cake was good enough that our engineer friends were picking out inconsistencies! (Thanks guys.)

Q11: How will things work, as you and kids return to earth time? By the way, how did you explain the time difference to your kids? I know they’re all different ages, did they all get it right away?

It was an easy transition into Earth time. We’ve all been morning people the last few days, but I can see we’re about to slip right back into our normal awake and sleeping periods.

My kids seemed to get Mars time pretty quickly. They certainly understood we’d be staying up 40 extra minutes every day and we would wake up later each morning. They also understood we would go all the way around the clock. We brainstormed ideas of what to do at night and how to keep our rooms dark. My 8 yo has to give an oral presentation this week on Mars time. I was curious how much he really understood, so I gave him a flashlight and soft Earth and Mars globes and asked him to explain what a Sol is. He did a fantastic job! He gave the right definitions and demonstrations for what a 24 hour Earth day is and a 24 hr 39 min Martian Sol is.
Q12. Any favorite interviews, or cool celeb meetings that you might not have enjoyed otherwise?

We met a bunch of cool people in the media. Reporters, photographers. I *love* the JPL Media office who takes really good care of David. My favorite interview was Melissa Block on NPR’s All Things Considered. She and her entire staff were incredibly nice. I’m most stunned that my two older kids went live on CNN. I couldn’t believe we were there, and I couldn’t believe my kids were willing to go on live. I was so proud of them. We all also still giggle about meeting Bill Nye the Science Guy at JPL. We were trying to figure out if it was him. When he realized we were the Mars time family, he wanted to take a picture of us!

 

THANK YOU to the Oh family for sharing their passion for science, math, the space program, and how they lived on Mars time! You can read more of Stephanie’s posts here.

 

Other posts you might enjoy:

Curiosity Lands on Mars!

There’s a Comet Headed for Earth

Vacation at Space Camp

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