BOZEMAN -- Jaime Waydo first dreamed of sending something to Mars when she was a Montana seventh-grader more familiar with seed potatoes than space.
Now, about 22 years later, the Montana State University graduate, who grew up on a Gallatin County farm, saw her dream come true when the rover Curiosity landed on Mars.
As head of the rover’s mobility team and an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Waydo was responsible for such things as Curiosity’s wheels and suspension system.
She was relieved, therefore, when the first picture that she saw from Mars showed the wheels in their stowed position. That’s exactly where they needed to be after a nine-month flight that ended at 10:31 p.m. Aug. 5, Waydo explained.
The second picture showed the giant shadow of an upright rover. It was another reassuring image since Curiosity needed to stand to rove.
Watching the landing was an emotional time that she shared with former co-workers, her mother, sister, son and about 1,000 other people who gathered at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Waydo said.
She went to Seattle because she wanted to view the landing with her closest friends, who had worked at JPL before moving.
“Everybody screamed and hugged and cried,” Waydo said. “We broke out the champagne.”
The Mars landing represented years of work and reminded her of the encouragement that she received along the way from family, teachers and serendipitous strangers, Waydo said.
“I just want you to know I appreciate that you always told me to follow my dream,” Waydo told her mother, Shirley Dyk, during the Seattle festivities.
“You knew from the very beginning that I wouldn’t live close to you, but you told me to do it anyway.”
Waydo said she first knew she wanted to send things to Mars when was in junior high at Manhattan Christian School and teacher Howard Walhof incorporated the Viking program into his history lessons.
“I remember her saying that,” Walhof said recently. “She was a confident young lady.”
Waydo continued to share her thoughts in high school, where math teacher George Kent asked the questions and gave the advice that turned her ambiguous dream into a plan.
Kent suggested that she major in engineering at college, Waydo said.
When she commented that engineering seemed to be a field reserved for males, he said, “Absolutely not.” He reminded her that she excelled at math and science, both of which are necessary for engineers.
“You look at a child as a creation,” Kent said of his teaching philosophy. “Don’t hold them back.”
Waydo took Kent’s advice.
After graduating from Manhattan Christian School in 1995, she enrolled at MSU and majored in mechanical engineering. She still remembers taking courses from Doug Cairns, who was “really cool” and made his classes fun by telling stories about his experiences and giving practical opportunities in the classroom, Waydo said.
One such opportunity had her working on a team that designed the floor beams for a Boeing 747-600 aircraft. Boeing engineers also came to MSU to lecture in her classes.
Then, while waitressing to help pay her way through school, Waydo met Ced and Carol Conover of Bozeman. The couple often ate at Perkins where Waydo was working, and the three struck up a friendship.
One day Carol asked Waydo what she planned to do with her life. Carol was surprised when Waydo said she planned to become an engineer and hoped to work for JPL.
“No way. What a small world,” Waydo remembered Carol saying.
Carol’s brother-in-law, Art Kermode, had just retired after 31 years with JPL, and he was moving to Bozeman. As a technical group supervisor for JPL, he had a hand in the Sojourner rover, which landed on Mars in 1997, the year that he retired.
Waydo met Kermode a short time later. He told her about JPL and passed along her resumé to his former co-workers.
“I appreciated the opportunity to share with her and see her get connected to the right people,” said Kermode who still lives in Bozeman.
Within a week of their meeting, Waydo had a telephone interview that led to a JPL internship. After graduating from MSU in 2000, she joined JPL full-time.
That the same year, she met Steve Waydo, a co-worker who became her husband.
Her career so far, especially her work on Curiosity, has meant long hours and countless challenges, Waydo said. Among them was imagining how to land a rover on another planet and then building it so it could move once it got there.
Her team -- about 25 people at its peak -- originally thought about using an airbag system to protect Curiosity as it landed on Mars, Waydo said. That approach had worked well for the previous three Mars rovers.
But Curiosity needed to be much larger to carry out the science planned, so they went with a sky crane system instead. They also designed the mobility system so it would absorb some of the shock of landing.
That was the right decision, Waydo said.
So was the decision to follow her dream.
“It’s a passion,” she said of her work. “The hours kind of don’t matter. You are doing what you love. You are doing what you were made to do.”
Waydo -- who has painted pieces of steel pink to lighten the mood and indicate that women work at JPL -- added that her hard work at MSU paid off, too.
“It pays off with this career that’s more fun than you can imagine,” she said. “It’s new and different every day.”
And, even as she appreciates her mentors, her mentors said they are happy for her. Kent said he watches for Waydo whenever he sees TV broadcasts about the Mars landing.
“She was just meant to do it,” Kent said. “She was a very intelligent young girl and a very hard worker. You can be anything you want.”