Alumnus of Merit Award 2007


Alumnus of Merit Award
The Alumnus of Merit Award is the highest honor the Alumni Association bestows on an alumnus of Whitman College. This award is given to alumni who have achieved distinction in their chosen field, or rendered outstanding service to their community, or rendered outstanding service to, and demonstrated loyal interest in, Whitman College. Members of the Board of Trustees, the Board of Overseers, and the Board of Directors of the Alumni Association are eligible three years after their last term has been served.
Rob Manning

2007 Alumnus of Merit Award Recipient

Rob Manning's childhood dream of becoming a space engineer is still coming true. And Manning '80, chief engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, is quick to credit Whitman with helping him develop the self discipline and study skills that put him where he is today — building the space probes he read and dreamed about as a child.

Although Manning spent his childhood living a "Huckleberry Finn existence" in rural northwestern Washington, he longed to be a part of the world of "amazing space probes and astronauts that the United States was sending to the moon," but claims to have been just a mediocre student in high school.

"I didn't believe that I could really become an engineer until I got to Whitman," says Manning. But the possibility of completing the Whitman-Caltech 3-2 program (which enabled him to earn a bachelor of arts degree from Whitman and a bachelor of science degree from Caltech in five years) inspired him. That, and fear, he says on his NASA Web site.

"There's nothing like a good dose of fear to get the ball rolling! I studied hard. Very hard. I literally lived in the college library under a portrait of the great Indian Chief Joseph. He was very stern and seemed to encourage me not to lose sight of my goals. I didn't."

The rest is history.

In 1981 (while still a student at Caltech), Manning was offered a part-time position as an electronics draftsman for the Galileo mission at JPL. He proceeded to work his way up the NASA ladder working on spacecraft computer systems until the Mars Pathfinder project took over his life in 1993. There he served as chief engineer for Mars Pathfinder and also led the Entry, Descent and Landing team. Pathfinder and little Sojourner rover successfully bounced into Mars History on July 4, 1997. Later Manning led the development of the Mars Sample Return Lander until the failure of two other Mars probes in 1999 indefinitely postponed the development of Mars Sample Return.

In an attempt to regain NASA's Mars exploration stature, Manning and a small team at JPL conceived and proposed the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission based on the Mars Pathfinder design in April 2000. Rob then became the MER System Engineering Manager and later, Entry, Descent and Landing Manager for MER.

He supervised his second and third hair-raising robotic Mars landings when Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed successfully in January of 2004. Since then, Manning has been chief engineer for NASA's robotic Mars Exploration Program at JPL where he works with some of the nation's finest engineers on current and future Mars missions. In 2004 Rob was named by SpaceNews as "one of 100 people who made a difference in civil, commercial and military space since 1989."

"I am very proud and amazed that I have been selected as this year's Alumnus of Merit," Manning says. My Whitman years became a life-altering experience. I came to Whitman from a small farm town where academics, science and engineering seemed the furthest thing in the world. I was very nervous.

"However, the approachability, the enthusiasm, and the extraordinary quality of the faculty surprised me. I was struck by the wonderful diversity and the range of experiences of my fellow students. The Whitman community welcomed me into a world I had only dared to dream to be part of."

"Almost unbelievably after a quarter century, I have found myself a solid fixture in the world of robotics and space exploration. My comfort to ask questions, to express genuine enthusiasm and wonder at our natural world as well as the never-ending depth of human creativity comes squarely from the examples the Whitman community laid before me."

"Whitman is an amazing place and I am proud to have experienced it."