ROCKFORD, Ill. — When he was 12 years old, Dan Scharf was watching TV in his Rockford home and saw images that Voyager 2 had captured looking back into the solar system from past Uranus.
His reaction was somewhat akin to John Belushi's character in "The Blues Brothers," when Jake Elwood had a light-guided epiphany about getting the band back together.
Scharf said he had a "momentous feeling" as the spacecraft flew by Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. "My whole body and soul were saying, 'This is the path to follow.' "
In August, Scharf, 39, senior engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said he experienced a "total dream come true" when the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity rover landed on Mars. The project signifies a new era of exploration aimed at discovering if Mars has the building blocks needed for life.
The 1991 graduate of Rockford's Boylan Catholic High School was in charge of the guidance, navigation and control — that is the "spacecraft reflexes" — for the backup landing system. That backup system would have taken over steering for the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft to hit its landing target, if there had been any problems with the primary landing system.
On one side of the 15-mile-around landing target 150 million miles from Earth was a two-mile-high crater wall. On the other was a three-mile-tall mountain in the middle of the crater. "We hit the sweet spot," Scharf said.
The seven-minute landing went so well, the backup system that took Scharf and the rest of the backup team a year to develop wasn't needed. Then, after landing, the backup system deleted itself to make room for the rover driving instructions, he said. "I liken it to parenting a teenager," Scharf said. "Your job is to be there, if needed, but hopefully, you're not needed."
Scharf's parents, who live in Rockford, knew before their son's epiphany in 1986 that space exploration was on his radar.
"He was building model airplanes since he was 3," said his father, Daniel Scharf, founder and owner of American Aeronautics, formerly based in Rockford but now based in Chicago. The business designs software to make sure the center of gravity of airplanes is right for flying.
Joanne Scharf, Dan's mother and a retired special education teacher, said her son read all of his father's science fiction novels from the 1960s. "He was always exploring," she said.
Young Dan also participated in Outward Bound, an outdoor leadership program and was a youth leader at Holy Family Catholic Church in Rockford. In his sophomore and junior years in high school, he attended Space Academy at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The Scharfs traveled to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which runs the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to celebrate the Aug. 6 Curiosity landing. They weren't in the same room as those who worked on the project. Even so, Joanne said, "We felt the electricity of these engineers."
Daniel said the Curiosity landing was "a miracle, ... the highest achievement of mankind," and his son was a big part of the landing "safety net."
Daniel said it is every aerospace engineer's dream to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but his son wasn't always happy with the job he was doing. During the Bush administration, the telescopes projects Dan was working on were turned away from space exploration toward looking at goings-on on Earth for the Department of Defense. But a year and a half ago, there was an opening on the Mars Science Laboratory, and Dan got the job. "Now he's working on the next Mars lander."
The first rover on Mars was the size of a shoebox, the next proved that water once flowed on the Red Planet, and Curiosity is a "geo-chemistry lab on wheels," Dan said. The expectation is that Curiosity will be active at least two years on Mars, he said.
The next rover is being planned to land on Mars in 2018 to 2020, but depends on NASA's budget, Dan said.
Curiosity could have landed anywhere in a circle about twice the size of Rockford, Dan said. The project he's working on now "will allow us to land in a football field."