On January 25, 2004, the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” landed in the equatorial region of the Red Planet. As Opportunity began to explore, it and its twin, Spirit, were controlled by a team of experts on Earth, who turned a map of the rovers’ desired route and instructions for experimentation into computer language that the rovers could understand. One member of this team was Ashley Stroupe, dubbed the “first woman to drive on Mars”. In a 2015 interview, Stroupe stated that a highlight of her career was seeing the tracks that she had helped the rover Spirit make, saying, “I felt like a true explorer.”
The daughter of an aerospace engineer who worked on the Voyager and Gemini projects, Stroupe was always fascinated by space. She initially hoped to be an astronaut, but was unfortunately plagued by motion sickness. Rather than letting this deter her dreams, however, Stroupe simply changed her focus to building the vehicles for space exploration.
In 2003, Stroupe received her PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. Her work at the Robotics Institute focused around developing the software that is necessary to power robots and specifically enabling multiple robots to work together as a team. After completing her doctorate, Stroupe joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
In addition to her work “driving” the Mars rovers, she uses data from the rovers to identify and evaluate potential landing sites for a manned mission to Mars. Furthering the software work from her graduate studies, Stroupe is developing ways for multi-robot teams to work together in complex environments. The goal is for robots to be able to build habitats on Mars before manned flights are sent. She participates in the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition, in which every August a team of biologists, geologists, and engineers comes together to practice and prepare for an expedition to Mars on the island of Spitsbergen, about 600 miles from the North Pole.
When she is not working, she is an active participant in the CalTech drama community, enjoying both acting and working behind the scenes.
Written by Nicole Hutchison