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Manor residents, NASA parents

Matt Heverly, a former Medford resident who now works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has had roles in the past three Rover Missions, moved from the area to Southern California when he was in elementary school for his father’s work.

Matt’s parents Mike and Jane Heverly have since returned to the area, now residing at the Rogue Valley Manor. But they aren’t the Manor’s only residents who have a child working for NASA. Ravindra and Tina Vasavada, who moved from California to the Rogue Valley in 2013, are the parents of NASA JPL project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, who continues to work on the Curiosity Rover mission.

“It was quite surprising, quite coincidental,” Ashwin said in a telephone interview. “Probably surprising for my parents, too. They’re probably used to having that be a unique thing, and then to find someone else who is basically in the same position, it’s kind of neat. Of all the places in the world to have two people whose kids work on Mars.”

In a short interview on the NASA website,he referred to watching the Curiosity launch as a career highlight.

“Seeing our car-sized rover look so tiny on top of a massive rocket, and then seeing that rocket take our baby away from Earth in a roar of thunder and fire, it became much more real,” Ashwin said in the interview. “We really are just tiny human beings using all our intellectual and mechanical strength to sling ourselves virtually to other worlds.”

Matt worked on Curiosity from 2008 to 2015, first as a mobility systems engineer, then as a rover driver. Ashwin’s role as project scientist is a bit broader. Project scientists “conceive, design, build, test and fly robotic spacecraft that explore the Earth, the solar system and beyond,” according to the NASA website. Ultimately, Ashwin would tell drivers like Matt what he’d like the Curiosity rover to do, and the drivers would try to make it happen.

“This was a team,” Ravindra said. “Engineer doing his thing and scientist doing their thing.”

“Ashwin is responsible for all the scientific stuff,” Mike added. “Matt just had to get it there.”

Ashwin graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a doctorate in planetary science. Ravindra and Tina had moved to the area in 2013, though Jane and Mike already lived at the Manor.

“People kept telling us when we said our son works at NASA,” Tina said. “At JPL, they said, ‘Oh, there’s somebody else here.’”

They eventually met and became friends. Ravindra told Ashwin about the Rogue Valley Manor NASA connection — that he lived in the same community as the parents of Matt Heverly.

“‘Oh yeah, I know him. He’s on my team!’” Ravindra recalled Ashwin saying. “I call it destiny.”

The passion for their sons’ work is contagious. Jane recalled a trip to JPL and witnessing Matt’s reaction to some of the photos Curiosity had captured on Mars.

“Matt’s excitement at seeing the pictures. ... ‘Oh! Did you see that? That was absolutely fantastic. This is my favorite view,’” Jane recalled Matt saying as he looked at the images. “He was just so excited about the pictures they got back.”

“He was like a kid that just came home from his first soccer game,” Mike added.

When Ashwin was first selected for the job, Ravindra remembers being particularly proud. Sometimes, father and son have shared nerves during the more delicate parts of the mission, including Curiosity’s final descent to the Martian surface.

“That was another big moment, when it landed successfully,” Ravindra said.

“People were crying,” Tina recalled.

Both families noted their sons’ prowess for teaching and communication, too, a welcome aid when trying to share your meticulous work with others.

Ashwin noted two recent milestones on the Curiosity mission. One was employees transferring their work to their homes because of the pandemic.

“I’m not even sure we would have thought it was possible if you asked us a few years ago, but we very quickly found ways to do it,” Ashwin said. “I really was worried it wouldn’t turn out so positively.”

The other is a terrain boundary Curiosity recently crossed, transitioning from clay-heavy terrain to rocks that contain a lot more sulfate minerals, rocks believed to have formed when the planet started to dry out.

“The main trick that Curiosity still has in her bag of tricks is to cross this major transition from clay to sulfate minerals,” Ashwin said. “That would be a really fitting way to spend the remaining years of the mission.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschMike and Jane Heverly (left) sit with Tina and Ravindra Vasavada in early March. The four all live at the Rogue Valley Manor, and both have sons who work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.