ROCKFORD, Ill. —
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."