As people around the world watched the Mars rover Perseverance land on Feb. 18, 2021, Crossroads alumnus Matt Frost ’91 felt simultaneously excited and anxious. For Matt, cognizant engineer and contract technical manager for the rover’s robotic arm, the project’s success had yet to be achieved.
“I didn’t really start feeling more relaxed until 11 days later, after we deployed the arm, moved it around on Mars and got the data back from the checkouts saying it was all operating nominally,” recalls Matt, who has been working on the robotic arm at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for almost seven years.
And there’s plenty more to accomplish. “I’m still a little nervous,” Matt acknowledges. The rover’s mission will take place over the course of one Mars year, or 687 days on Earth.
According to Matt, his journey to Mars (via the rover) began when he was a small child. “I started in the usual fashion, crouched over, on the floor, playing with Lego,” Matt remembers. “That led to tinkering and taking broken stuff apart to see how things worked.”
Over the years, his list of dismantled machines included his parent’s 1970 Volkswagen Bug and an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle. But Matt didn’t immediately gravitate to engineering as a profession. “In high school, I liked science and computers, but didn’t have the knack for math early on, so naturally I studied art,” he explains.
After graduating from Crossroads, Matt initially took up a variety of odd jobs in lieu of attending college. While working at a salmon processing plant in Alaska, he finally realized his calling. “Fish life stunk,” jokes Matt. “But there were a couple of folks with really cool jobs. They were fixing the ‘slime-line’ fish-processing conveyor belts, modifying forklifts or making new contraptions, and they never had to touch fish.” When Matt asked if he could join their team, one of the workers told him that he needed to go to engineering school first.
Back in California, Matt finally mastered math at Santa Monica College. He then transferred to the School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA, where he majored in mechanical engineering. “It was all robots, all the time,” he says. “That’s all I wanted to do, and the rest just fell into play naturally.”
Moving forward, Matt will continue to support the robotic arm’s use, but he has also started his next project: a new flight technology called CADRE (Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration). In layperson’s terms, Matt explains, “basically think of a bunch of small rovers sharing data with each other as they explore, map and perform science measurements in new environments.” Plans to demonstrate the technology are set for late 2023—on the moon.
While Matt’s days at Crossroads predated the Robotics Team, he recognizes, “Crossroads gave me a broad view of the world and made me a better person and critical thinker”—necessary skills for an engineer. As a former student who struggled in math, Matt adds: “Math is essential for engineering, so make sure you do well in it, but it’s not everything … critical thinking and creativity are also helpful in coming up with solutions.” For aspiring engineers, Matt advises, “get out there and start doing it.”