PASADENA, CA – Greek-American Theodore Tzanetos is living his dream working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). He is the Tactical Lead for Ingenuity – Mars Helicopter, which is currently onboard the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, on its way to the red planet. Tzanetos spoke with The National Herald about his work and about his Greek heritage.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he earned both his BS (2012) and M. Eng (2013) in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at the venerable institution.
Before joining JPL in 2017, he was the Head of Engineering at The Drone Racing League (DRL), a New York City-based startup, where he managed a team of developers and engineers to build drone-race infrastructure, embedded avionics, and an online FPV [first person view] simulator played by tens of thousands of users worldwide.
Before DRL, Tzanetos worked at Samsung and MIT Lincoln Laboratory Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) where he worked on what came to be known as the Department of Defense’s Perdix Project, a small F/A-18-deployed drone.
TNH: Did you always have an interest in science and want to work for NASA?
Theodore Tzanetos: I was interested in engineering since I was about 10 years old, which is when my father showed me how to assemble my first desktop computer. Since then, I was hooked and wanted to understand how it was possible for a computer to process data, act on information, and follow a program. I went to travelling computer shows growing up to stay up to date with the latest components, played with hundreds of Lego sets, and eventually joined the Plainview-Old Bethpage High School’s FIRST Robotics Team and Independent Research Program. That was when I solidified my passion for engineering. Working at a NASA center was always a dream of mine, but I never thought it would come true.
TNH: What surprised you the most when you started at NASA?
TT: The diverse research community at NASA JPL. There are researchers from all over the world that come to JPL to do cutting edge research on robotics, science, and engineering.
TNH: What are you working on now?
TT: I am the Tactical Lead for Ingenuity – Mars Helicopter, which is currently onboard the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, on its way to Mars. The mission for Ingenuity is to be humanity’s Wright brothers’ moment for Mars, to prove that we can fly a powered vehicle on another planet.
TNH: What are you looking forward to the most in your career?
TT: Our first flight on Mars next year in 2021!
TNH: How has your family reacted to your success?
TT: We will find out next year after Ingenuity flies! My family has always been extremely supportive and proud. It was difficult for them when I decided to move to the west coast to work at NASA JPL, but they understood the magnitude of the opportunity and my passion for robotics.
TNH: Where in Greece is the family from?
TT: Both of my parents were born in Athens, and my grandparents are from Amorgos, Isaris, Richea, and Garea.
TNH: How does your Greek heritage inform your life and work?
TT: I think my Greek upbringing encouraged me to be curious about math from a young age, inspired a focused work-ethic, and gave me a respect for traditions. I love to cook Greek food for large gatherings and trying to learn as many recipes as I can. While my sister has me beat on spanakopita and most of the intricate hallmarks of Greek cuisine, I am still responsible for the lamb at Easter and during previous Mars Helicopter team BBQs.