Where He Landed
How the child in an old road trip photo from the Patagonia catalog is helping humanity understand Mars.
Rule #1 of a road trip: Vehicle may break down. Rule #2 of a road trip: You may break down along with it.
Near the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, Gordon and Meredith Wiltsie were struggling with wrenches and wire after the muffler came loose on their old International Travelall. As their 4-year-old son, Nick, whacked at rocks with a hammer at the side of the road, Meredith sat down next to the broken-down vehicle and covered her face with a grease-smeared hand. Gordon snapped a photo, which appeared in the Spring 1993 Patagonia catalog. (Just out of the frame was Nick’s older brother, Ben, jumping around on the roof of the wagon.)
“To a certain extent, it’s very emblematic of my upbringing that my mom is having this horrible breakdown and my dad, of course, is breaking out the camera,” Nick, now 30, says with a laugh. “Especially when everything is going wrong.” He describes his parents as perpetual adventurers who met on a ski trip in college and honeymooned in Bangladesh. The peripatetics continued as their family grew, with countless camping and climbing trips to faraway places.
As for Nick, vehicles and rocks are still pretty much his specialty, though his road trips are now exponentially more remote. As a mechanical engineer for the Mars rover program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he helps plan the movements of the Curiosity rover. He’s also developing ground control software for the new Mars 2020 rover, which is set to launch next year.
“Basically, I work on how to keep the rovers safe while they’re driving around exploring the surface of Mars,” he says. “One of the things I really like about the job is that if anything goes wrong, it’s often completely novel, and we get to figure out how to solve that problem for the first time. With Curiosity, it was the drill on its robotic arm. It broke about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been involved with how to repair it. How do you work around repairing a robot that is a billion miles away? I love that.”
Rule #3 of a road trip: Embrace the unexpected.