When a spacecraft lands on Mars or goes into orbit around the planet, Steve Levoe ’75 is one of the first people to see the images sent back to Earth. A software engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., he translates the data received into spectacular photographs of the Martian landscape. Scientists and the media eagerly await these images, which Steve also posts on the JPL Web site for the public to see.
Although his father worked at JPL, Steve never expected to pursue a career there. Recruited as a track and field athlete at Westmont, he majored in psychology and thought about being a youth minster. The San Francisco Urban program gave him an opportunity to work with at-risk youth in the Mission District, and he tried both youth ministry and coaching after he graduated. An avid volleyball player, he started the men’s volleyball club team on campus with his future wife, Warrior volleyball athlete Lisa Mosbaugh Levoe ’77.
A friend suggested that Steve look into computer programming, so he went back to school and got a job creating business accounting systems for Rexon Business Machines. When that company failed and he needed work, Steve sent a resume to JPL. Twenty-four years later, he’s still there.
His first task was validating software for the guidance system of Galileo, a spacecraft that studied the planet Jupiter. For the last 15 years, Steve has processed images as part of the solar system visualization group. He writes and operates ground-processing software for missions that turns 1’s and 0’s sent from space into photographs. “If you’ve seen images of Mars from JPL, you’ve seen my work,” he says. Steve enjoys sitting in on press conferences where engineers and scientists from JPL interpret the images his group has provided.
Combining his love for volleyball and his interest in high school students, Steve coached for many years at Village Christian High School in Sun Valley, where his wife has been a guidance counselor since 2002 after teaching math for 17 years. Steve and Lisa have both retired as coaches, but they passed their passion for athletics on to their two sons, who are 25 and 23.
Working with engineers and student interns from leading universities has helped Steve appreciate his liberal arts education. “My job involves problem solving, designing systems, deciding how to spend money, gathering information and making conclusions, which are important skills wherever you go,” he says. “Technical knowledge is only one of the things you need to be effective in the workplace; you also need to work hard, be able to learn new things and find answers to what you don’t know. Even engineers have to communicate their thoughts clearly, get along in groups of people and really listen. Those are all things you learn at a liberal arts college.”
Away from the high-tech atmosphere at JPL, Steve and his family enjoy hiking and backpacking near Hume Lake, where they own a cabin. He’s turning the dwelling into a year-round retirement home, building cabinets, doing woodworking and looking forward to the day they move in permanently.
Meanwhile, he’s passionate about exploring Mars. “NASA allows us to dream, to satisfy our curiosity about how things work,” he says. “It’s exciting to be part of that endeavor.”