Matt Heverly, 36, started a recent workday as any young father might: up at 5:30, gulping coffee, fixing a bottle for the baby. He threw on jeans and a T-shirt and drove his two sons to day care. He stopped to get the brakes on his Toyota checked and swung by the bank.
Then he went to the office ... to drive a $2.5 billion robot on Mars.
Mr. Heverly leads a team of 16 drivers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory here. Together, they are responsible for steering a six-wheeled, plutonium-powered rover called Curiosity across the Red Planet's Gale Crater. Equipped with futuristic tools like a laser that can vaporize rock, the 2,000-pound robot arrived on Mars on Aug. 6, and Mr. Heverly took the wheel -- or computer keyboard, actually -- on Aug. 22. [...]
People inside Building 264 here, part of the Space Flight Operations Facility, have long had a sense of humor about themselves -- at one rocket launching, a group of scientists wore Spock ears. "It's just that before social media, nobody was really watching," Mr. Ferdowsi said. "I'm still kind of amazed at the attention. I don't think there's anything all that interesting about me."
In many ways, this is like any other office: gray industrial carpeting, fluorescent lighting, cramped cubicles that are mostly undecorated, unless you count empty cans of Red Bull. A small pantry has packages of dried fruit snacks. There is the occasional potluck dinner and an office softball team; at a recent game, everyone wore fake mohawks to tease Mr. Ferdowsi.
On the elevator, people say things like "Can you press seven? I'm going to Jupiter." They are not kidding. The seventh floor is home to Juno, a mission to the solar system's largest planet. (Mars is on six and four.)
There is also a quiet cockiness. "We definitely win the coolest job contest at cocktail parties," said John Wright, 56, a Curiosity driver who had reported to work in a baseball cap, a T-shirt and shorts.
"What do you do? Oh, you're an investment banker? Isn't that special," Mr. Wright continued. "I drive on Mars."