‘For the benefit of all mankind’
ARCADIA, Calif. — Phoenix, New York native and SUNY Oswego graduate Kenny Roffo can solve a Rubix cube in less than thirty seconds.
Somewhat remarkable, sure, even if he hadn’t nervously revealed the skill in a job interview. A job interview with one of the most elite workplaces on the planet.
But, he did. And now he works at NASA’s legendary Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Roffo’s work landed on Mars this week and will send back data more than 300 million miles. The software engineer’s modeling tools are being used by InSight, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander that touched down on the red planet Monday and captured the world’s attention.
It’s fitting that Roffo’s high school mascot is the Phoenix Firebird, a lone figure rising from the ashes in a plume of flame and smoke. The Atlas V rocket that shot InSight toward its ruddy home in May plotted a similar course against a dark sky.
To celebrate the successful landing of InSight, The Palladium-Times spoke with Roffo from his home in Arcadia, Calif, close to his offices at JPL. With family still in Oswego County and a strong love for the area, Roffo credits his high school and SUNY Oswego with much of his success, saying he “fell in love” with astrophysics.
“I wanted to understand how the universe worked,” he who spent his first year at JPL working on modeling tools in anticipation of this week’s big payoff.
“We need to tell InSight what to do every day, so we need to run our plan through some simulations,” said Roffo. “I worked to develop the tools that orchestrate this modeling and then create reports to allow humans to understand their results. Now that we are on Mars, I get to see my tools being used by the InSight team every day.”
And that’s not all. In recent months, Roffo has started working on flight software for future missions.
“This is the actual code that runs onboard our spacecraft,” he said.
Roffo said he feels a deep sense of purpose working for NASA at JPL.
“Everything I do at work is for the benefit of all mankind,” he said. “I am directly pushing humanity toward new horizons and helping us gain a stronger understanding of our universe. It is a true honor to be able to do this work, and I am exceptionally grateful.”
InSight started her journey in May with little problem but Roffo said the last hour before touchdown on Monday had him “overflowing with emotions.”
While waiting with baited breath, he said he was simultaneously excited, nervous, proud and scared.
“Finally when I heard the words, ‘Touchdown confirmed,’ I jumped and shouted, along with everyone in the room,” Roffo said. He and his team were “in sheer awe” in that moment.
“We were safe on the surface of Mars,” he said.
During his senior year of high school, Roffo met SUNY Oswego physics professor Dr. Shashi Kanbur.
“He showed me the Double Slit Experiment, and gave me an amazing pitch which led to my decision to attend Oswego," said Roffo.
The Double Slit Experiment is a common physics demonstration that exemplifies quantum mechanics, as well as the wave-particle duality of photons — famous in the scientific community for its elegance and mystery.
Roffo hit the ground running in college and said he chose to take a “very ambitious course schedule.”
In five years, he completed three majors — physics, mathematics and computer science.
“He was an excellent student who did a number of projects with me,” said Kanbur of his former pupil. “The thing I remember is that he was always enthusiastic about his work, whatever it was and this is really, I think, the secret to his success. He is also a terrific person.”
Roffo said his life at Oswego “was a blast,” but singled out his time as the President of the Math Club as one of his favorite remembrances of undergrad life.
“There are so many great things about Oswego,” he said. “I have so many great memories. If I had to pick just one thing, though, it would have to be Math Club.”
When membership was waning in 2014, Roffo and his fellow students, along with Dr. Elizabeth Wilcox and other professions brought the club to a “thriving new era” over the course of two years.
“We became such a strong club that the math department was confident in our ability to host the MAA Seaway conference at Oswego in 2017,” he said. “It meant a lot to me to bring those opportunities to so many students who were passionate about math. It was beautiful.”
Wilcox said she remembers Roffo as “hard working, enthusiastic, and insightful.”
“He shared his passion for science and mathematics with all of his friends, classmates and even staff members and professors,” she said.
Roffo hopes to encourage everyone in his home county and at his alma mater to take an interest in science and space, and to “keep an eye out” for NASA public outreach events.
“NASA understands that everything we do is for the people,” he said. “InSight, for example, has millions of names on little chips on the deck of the lander of people who went online and submitted their names.”
He suggests following NASA on social media and periodically checking their websites or signing up for e-mail alerts.
For future scientists and engineers looking to break into the field, Roffo says his connection with Dr. Kanbur was instrumental, as well nailing his interview.
“Dr. Kanbur still helps students connect with JPL, and even this past summer an Oswego student had an internship here,” Roffo said from his office in California.
Though his mind is pointed to the stars, the well-rounded Roffo also keeps his hands busy.
“It may sound silly that solving a Rubik’s cube helped me land an internship at JPL,” he said. “But the manager that hired me has told me that when she saw me do that she knew I was getting an internship, because it showed that I had my own interests and put effort into them.”