EWU Grad Working on NASA’s Mars Sample Return Project

October 3, 2023

Not even the sky’s the limit for recent Eastern Washington University alumnus Dillon Dalton. The 23-year-old-graduate of the Computer Science Program is working on NASA’s Mars Sample Return, which has the ultimate goal of bringing rock and atmospheric samples from Mars back to Earth for the first time. 

With a project that takes years to complete, there are many moving parts and several thousand NASA employees preparing for the mission. Dalton’s team, an elite group of seven, works specifically on the cameras that will guide the sample-retrieval lander. “The cameras are pretty instrumental in navigating the spacecraft,” Dalton ’22 said. “They generate the data products which give you more information on different geographical features of Mars, like its topography and map products.”

These cameras are just one part of a complex system designed to help guide the lander during its six-month sample collection sojourn on the surface. After which, a capsule containing the samples will be launched to the Earth Return Orbiter circling the planet, which will capture the samples and prepare them for their journey back to Earth. This entire project will take an estimated five years, beginning with the Sample Retrieval Lander’s two-year journey from Earth to Mars. 

Dalton works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where the preparation for this mission takes place. “We have something called the Mars Yard,” the Spokane native said, “which is essentially just dirt and rocks that look like Mars, where they do testing for the different spacecraft.” 

JPL is a world-renowned center of robotics where vehicles such as Voyager, Curiosity and Perseverance were built. “If it is in some way robotic, JPL has had a hand in that,” Dalton said. “There’s a lot of history there.”

One piece of JPL’s history is a tradition based not at all on science, but on luck.

“We have lucky peanuts,” Dalton explained. “It’s a tradition at JPL to have peanuts when there’s something crazy going on like a landing or launch.” Lucky peanuts, he adds, have already been passed around among his colleagues, colloquially known as “Martians,” in preparation for the mission to the Red Planet. 

Uprooting his life and moving to California has been a surreal experience for Dalton, who says he’s had a “fascination with space” since childhood. “To walk into some of the clean rooms—which is where they build the spacecraft—and to see the process of things getting assembled was a pretty incredible experience.” Dalton now works amongst scientists whom he once watched in documentaries. 

Earning a job at JPL was no small feat. Before he was offered a full-time position, Dalton applied for a part-time, scientific applications software engineering position while he was still at Eastern. After two months and nearly 10 interviews, Dalton began work in this role in October 2022.

“I don’t think being from a smaller school was a hindrance,” Dalton said. “I had the skills and experience they were looking for.” That experience began with  his undergraduate computer science work, where he gained valuable skills from both his courses and from internships like the one he scored with Schweitzer Engineering Labs in Spokane Valley. 

Looking to the future, Dalton hopes to obtain his master’s degree, “either in data science or in robotics. Eventually I would like to work on something like instrument autonomy. Actually making systems that work on their own.” 

For now, however, Dalton’s vision, one that began as a childhood interest in space, is being realized. 

 “I had a place that I wanted to work and I was going to do what it took to get there.”

Want to learn more about the Mars Sample Return? You can read about the mission and the Martians working on the project on NASA’s website.