Canyon Country resident plays key role in Mars missions

Gene Bonfiglio and fellow NASA engineer Brooke Harper share a handshake after landing spacecraft InSight successfully on Mars.

When Gene Bonfiglio was a young boy in elementary school, he boasted that he wanted to be the first man on Mars, just like other children.

Decades later, he would be one of many individuals responsible for an ambitious NASA launch onto the surface of Mars that succeeded on Monday.

When the lander InSight touched down on Mars’ surface, it marked the eighth time NASA successfully landed a spacecraft on the red planet.   

Bonfiglio, who has lived in Santa Clarita since 2004, commutes from Canyon Country to his day job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He’s worked at JPL since 1999 as a entry, descent and landing systems engineer, and is one of several local residents who have worked on NASA’s Mars programs at JPL.

Mars missions have marked his time there. Bonfiglio was also a member of the teams for the Phoenix and Curiosity spacecrafts.

On Monday, he said he was a nervous wreck before the landing succeeded.

“It was thrilling, watching every part of the landing all the way until the radar turned on when we landed,” he said. “It was an experience of a lifetime. We’ve been working for years on the lander. It is a lot of intense work with getting ready for landing, and all those tests could not have prepared you for the anxiety for the day we actually had to attempt the landing.”

Bonfiglio said he has been on this project for around five to six years. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, had been on its Mars-bound journey through space since May 6. For six months, Bonfiglio and his coworkers practiced the operations in real time of readying to read the radio signals, deploying the parachute and timing everything perfectly for the moments before InSight made a landing.

Once the lander reached its destination, touching down after descending at 2.5 meters per second, the team at JPL cheered when they received the radar confirmation eight minutes and seven seconds later, which is how long it takes radio signals to come from Mars to Earth, Bonfiglio said.

But now the task is monitoring InSight without any visual aids.

“We have no cameras,” the engineer said. “We just have radio signals coming in telling us what’s happening on the space route. The spacecraft has a couple of important sensors to figure out where it is, with an IMU (Initial Measurement Unit) that tells us which direction we’re pointed in.”

The main goal of the JPL team now is to study and understand the interior of Mars, Bonfiglio said. This entails determining what its surface is — if it’s liquid or solid, and also to measure the heat and rate at which the heat is leaving Mars.

Bonfiglio originally obtained his undergraduate and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Purdue University. He said he has loved space since he was a kid and this mission was a dream come true.

“I love space missions and loved the idea of going to other planets,” he said. “And I’ve always fantasized about doing that since I was a small child. The chance to work on a flight mission that landed on Mars is just incredible. The idea of helping to design and test this thing and have it actually land successfully on other planets is amazing.”

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