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NASA drivers await chance to operate biggest, baddest Mars rover

The San Gabriel Mountains rise over a rough patch of sun-baked volcanic boulders, dusty flagstones and earthen slopes. Amid the terrain, a hulking creature of titanium, aluminum and silicon creeps through the sand, its wheels squealing like nails on a chalkboard.

NASA engineer Brian Cooper watches as the mock-up of the Mars rover inches over jagged lava rocks that would have stopped previous versions.

The "Mars Yard" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is meant to be a torture test, but this rover is crushing every piece of it beneath its six, snare-drum-sized aluminum wheels.

"We've essentially put a monster truck on Mars," Cooper said as he guided the robot across the landscape in La Cañada Flintridge with his iPhone. Of course, the real rover on Mars won't be so easy, requiring thousands of lines of programming to make its way.

Cooper is part of a select group of engineers and programmers who have trained for years to drive the rover Curiosity on its journey over the harshness of Gale Crater.

Their job is an arcane calling that is mentally grueling and demands a unique temperament and skill set. Only 20 people worldwide have qualified.

Now, with the Curiosity rover wheels-down on the Red Planet, drivers are awaiting the chance to operate NASA's biggest and baddest rover, a device twice the size of its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, and loaded with improvements, such as a nuclear battery and a laser that can vaporize rock. If all goes well, the rover will begin making tracks next week after a full system check.

"We just want them to hand us the keys," said driver Frank Hartman.

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-- Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

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