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‘That’s my spacecraft.’ Former NASA engineer reflects on putting the Pathfinder on Mars.

Cindy Healy (right) stands with friend and fellow engineer Becky Manning Mitties in the NASA clean room.
Courtesy of Cindy Healy
Cindy Healy (right) stands with friend and fellow engineer Becky Manning Mitties in the NASA clean room.

This story originally aired on June 29, 2019.

It may have not completely hit Cindy Healy, a former NASA engineer, until she was sitting in the theater watching the Matt Damon movie, "The Martian." 

"And I'm trying hard to suppress an audible sob because I know I am the only one crying at this part of the movie," she said. "And I'm just wiping away tears and my son looks at me like I'm crazy. And I lean over to him and I whisper 'that's my spacecraft.'"

Cindy was just one of a few hundred people who helped put the Pathfinder spacecraft on Mars in real life. But that did not come without its challenges. 

Cindy Healy in 1996.
Credit Courtesy of Cindy Healy
Cindy Healy in 1996.

The budget was minimal. Some people involved didn't even want to work on it, because something that had such a slim chance of actually making it might ruin their careers. 

"Literally, the joke around the lab was for $200 million, we were trying to land a spacecraft and a rover on Mars for less money than Kevin Costner had just spent on 'Water World.'"

But Cindy didn't back down, and she wore a lot of hats in an effort to make it work. She wrote code to help perfect the flight simulation system (code that is still used on Mars missions today). She wrote uplink code so that messages could be sent to the spacecraft, and was a member of the launch team. 

But her biggest moment in getting the Pathfinder to Mars came after taking a selfie, and finding a loose cable. Listen to above to hear Cindy share her story.

This story was featured in a live event co-produced by Sound Effect and the Seattle-based storytelling series Fresh Ground Stories. Listen to more stories from the event in this episode, and in future installments of Sound Effect. 

Kevin Kniestedt is a journalist, host and producer who began his career at KNKX in 2003. Over his 17 years with the station, he worked as a full time jazz host, a news host and produced the weekly show Sound Effect. Kevin has conducted or produced hundreds of interviews, has won local and national awards for newscasts and commentary.