The Man From Mars

Written by Brendan Pollecutt, Photos by J.R. Hebert

Back in the 80’s, somewhere in a New Jersey basement, Torsten Zorn stood alongside his father, Tilman, building remote-control cars and airplanes late into the night. Now, some thirty years later, he has built the ultimate remote-control car, and is about to send it to another planet. Perseverance Rover will land at the Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18​, 2021. The rover will join its gutsy older brother, Curiosity, and extend the search for “evidence of ancient habitability.” As lead flight systems engineer, Zorn has played a key role and will continue to do so once it touches down. “I helped design, develop, and test what is called the Sample Catching Subsystem,” he tells me. “It’s the newest and most risky part of the rover, from a robotic standpoint.” Its primary purpose is to obtain and store Martian rock cores for retrieval by a follow-on mission.

Torsten Zorn sampling red rocks in person, in the California desert. [J.R. Hebert]
The journey from New Jersey basement to JPL labs in Pasadena was a natural arc for someone possessed with all things mechanical. His mother tells him he was pointing at tractors, motorcycles and cars before he could even talk. But it was his father who was most instrumental in kicking off a lifelong vocation. “My passion for automobiles probably started with my dad,” he tells me. “He grew up just outside of Stuttgart and watched the 356s and 550s test around the area.” In 1986, and now in New Jersey, his dad bought a 944 Porsche Turbo and put Zorn in the back seat as he drove it off the showroom floor. “It was just an incredible experience,” he remembers. “The sound, the smell of the car, the leather.” Some years later, his father got involved with the Porsche Club and began doing driver education days. Zorn would go along to the track and spend all day in the passenger seat, soaking up every last lap. It was, however, too tantalizing to not experience firsthand. “My dad has passed away, so we can print this,” he says, laughing, “I was taking the car out when I was 14 years old. He would go to work, and I would take it and drive it!”

Gremlin on Mars? Torsten's fabulous 1973 AMC Gremlin.  He credits hands-on experience with old vehicles with making him a better engineer:  “A lot of these people that I love, that are very brilliant, that I love working with, they've never turned a wrench before." [J.R. Hebert]
He studied Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado, and in his freshman year landed a job at The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, working on satellites. He did this for nine years and credits this to securing the job at JPL, “I was twenty-seven years old and I already had nine years of work experience on satellites.” This led to a slot on one of Nasa’s flagship missions, the aforementioned interplanetary remote-controlled car. Zorn was the surface flight director for Curiosity Rover back in 2012, a mission that is broadly regarded as a phenomenal success. “We are still the only group that has successfully landed on the surface of another planet and survived,” he says.

Perseverance touching down on Mars. [NASA/JPL]
Zorn describes The Mars 2020 mission, Perseverance, as the most complicated robotic mission ever developed. The rover is the size of a Jeep CJ, nuclear-powered, and weighs around a ton. It is geared for torque and moves about an inch per second. The team is limited by visual processing power so has to tread carefully. “The computers that we have on board are actually less powerful than an iPhone,” he explains. “Putting an iPhone in space could potentially fry the electronics with energetic particles coming off the sun.” They use special kinds of computers that are radiation hardened. “You cannot use the same type of superfast chips and things like that because they’re way too delicate for these applications.”

Part of the Perseverence landing package, the Ingenuity helicopter is a unique vehicle for off-world exploration. [NASA/JPL]
Driving blind is one thing, dealing with massive temperature fluctuations is another challenge altogether. The rover has to operate between a 40 ​°C​ ​and -120 ​°C​ (104​ °F​ ​to -184​ °F​) range. This swing creates a huge difference in resistance in circuits. The same command given in the afternoon would have a very different effect if performed at a colder time of day. “If we told it to do the same exact thing in the morning when it was like -100 ​°C​, it would snap the arm off.” The electrons move really efficiently when it’s cold, “So, you actually have to manage how you’re commanding, and the current control that's going to the motors, and therefore, the torque that's been produced relative to the temperature in the environment,” he explains. When in full effect, that power is something to behold. “It's a total torque monster,” says Zorn. Each of its six wheels has its own powerful motor. “You could actually take one of those motors and it could pull the full weight of the rover up a vertical wall.” He muses that I would be surprised at the similarities between the rover and those remote-controlled devices of his youth. “Those things that I was working on with my dad at eight in a basement,” he says, thinking back, “having that experience was definitely very, very helpful.” The thing about remote-control cars, he points out, is that they break all the time. This is not an option for the rover which has to function without any physical intervention for at least two years. So ultimately, he says, “It's an incredibly reliable, and robust, and redundant ​version of a remote-control car.”

Torsten's crazy cool customized Gremlin with a 350ci Chevy V8 installed...a sleeper with an original 1980s paint scheme. [J.R. Hebert]
At home, Zorn spends his time immersed in his two vintage cars, a 1984 Porsche 911 (backdated to a 1974 RSR retro-mod,) and a 1973 AMC Gremlin. He feels that working on his cars has given him a real advantage at the lab. “A lot of these people that I love, that are very brilliant, that I love working with, they've never turned a wrench before,” he says. “They’re theoretical, very math-based.” It’s the physical nature of working with your hands, he thinks, that gives one a broad spectrum of experience to bring to the table. I couldn’t help but wonder which of these cars he’d choose to take to Mars. He thinks it through aloud. The Porsche would have to stay back on Earth—the terrain would just rip into it. “The Gremlin would be fun if I had to carry a lot, but I don't know if I trust it to be reliable,” he says, chuckling. He does own a BMW GS Adventure bike which he would ultimately choose over both cars. And if he could choose ​any ​car from Earth? “The Land Rover D110,” he is quick to say. “That’s my vehicle of choice, for sure.”

Other landscapes, other vehicles. Torsten with his BMW GS on a surf trip in Baja California Norte, south of Ensenada. [Torsten Zorn]
Before he passed away last year, Zorn did get to spend one last precious journey with his father, completing the Targa Baja, a vintage car tour of the Baja California Peninsula. He describes the tour as reminiscent of the Carrera Panamericana. “It’s something that's very particular and special to old world Baja that you can still get there,” he says, “but you can't get in other parts of the world because it's passed, that time has passed in places like America and Italy.” It was, he says, a small way of repaying his father, his mentor. “I can't really describe in enough words how thankful I am that my dad gave me some of those experiences.” In his day, his father had been a very good driver, but had started slipping away mentally and lost some skills and judgment. He rode as a passenger through Baja California and handled it like a champ. “It was mentally and physically taxing-- those days out there,” he says, “and he was in the passenger seat, and he just did awesome.”

Not off-world, but surely out of this world. [J.R. Hebert].
Curiosity captured the public’s imagination back in 2012. Zorn is hoping that Perseverance can do the same and more this time around. “I feel like this world needs a little bit of good news right now,” he says. “If we pull this off, this is something that unites people rather than divides them.” When it finally lands on that day in February 2021, the entire world will be watching, as will his father, enjoying a front-row view from the heavens.

[Editor's note: we are excited to announce our next Petersen Museum exhibit -  ADV:Overland, Off-Road to Off-World - is all systems GO and opening July 2021.  Torsten Zorn is one of the many amazing partners and supporters of this exhibit:  exactly how Torsten is supporting ADV:Overland will be revealed soon!]

To boldly go... [J.R.Hebert]
Imagine yourself...on Mars. [J.R. Hebert]
Ciao Gremlin! [J.R. Hebert]