Charles Baker ’92 (Geography), Aerospace Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

When it comes to professional goals, those of Charles Baker ’92 (Geography) are literally out of this world. Baker is an aerospace engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, where his work has made international headlines.

"Seven years ago, I became lead mission planner for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity that searches areas of Mars for past or present conditions favorable to life," says Baker. "We enjoyed a picture-perfect landing in 2012 when our 2,000-pound, car-sized rover touched down."

Since then, Curiosity has found organic carbon compounds, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulfur—key ingredients necessary for life.

"There continue to be more and more discoveries showing that Mars has offered conditions favorable to microbial life, including evidence from Curiosity's instruments and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that show the possibility of liquid water existing on the planet's surface in the past and even today."

Baker says he remains grateful to Sac State for the innovative, hands-on education he received.

"I was fortunate to learn about geographic information systems (GIS) when computerized mapping was still new. I applied those skills working on terrain analysis for future Mars mission landing sites which got my start into what would eventually lead to a job at JPL."

As the United States government agency responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research, NASA employs 18,000 people across the country. JPL is managed and staffed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology and its direct expenditures within California total about $1 billion annually including more than $200 million for goods and services within the state.

"The return on investment is substantial," Baker adds. "Anything that has to do with robotic interplanetary exploration is a payback to the general public especially when you consider that Opportunity rover is still operating on Mars after 11 years and the Voyager is still returning data after 38 years with plans to continue until 2025. In addition, the mechanical engineering marvels that we invent from space exploration technologies such as carbon fiber have many uses in the general industry, such as aircraft, automobiles and sporting goods."

It's positive outcomes like these, says Baker, that propel him to continue working toward the next giant leap—a human mission to Mars.