While Memorial Day is technically a day to honor those who’ve died fighting for our country, this memorial day is also almost six months to the week since Altius lost a member of its small team, Peter Jeffris, to a climbing accident on Longs Peak. Someone on NASASpaceflight.com at the time had asked if we could talk a bit about what Peter had done, and who he was. I thought it was a great idea, but at the time we were so slammed with finishing the project Peter had been working with us on that it slipped through the cracks a bit. On the drive in to work today, as I was looking up at the snowcapped mountains, thinking about how his family plans on coming out this summer to hike Longs Peak as a sort of memorial for him, I realized that now was again a good time to talk about Peter Jeffris.
How We Met Peter
We met Peter through Nick Correll, a CU Boulder robotics professor we had worked with on the DARPA Phoenix program a few years back. He had a Mechanical Engineering student in his robotics lab who was about to wrap up his undergraduate studies, and wanted to do something more hands-on with robotics. So Bill Bolton had him figure out how to model our 3DOF STEM Arm in ROS (Robot Operating System). The extension/retraction degree of freedom isn’t one that’s well supported by most robotics software, so it sounded like a useful project. I hadn’t been following the project very closely, since it was right when we were spooling up SBIRs and the ARM BAA effort, but Bill was following it more closely, and suggested offering Peter an internship after he graduated that summer. We couldn’t afford it, but Peter offered to work for free because of how much he loved the robotics work we were doing. After getting to see Peter in action for a few weeks, we found a way to turn his position into a paid internship position. Peter ended up being such an amazing intern, that the day before his fatal climbing accident, after our Saturday morning management meeting, our me and our finance guy were trying to figure out how we could make Peter a full-time offer to keep him as a core member of our robotics team.
What Peter Did for Altius
As an intern, Peter started work focusing on our MAGE (Mechanical Assistant for Glovebox Experiments) project, where we were trying to adapt some COTS robotics and 3d vision solutions for use inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox on the ISS, and on our 3DOF STEM Arm testbed that we wanted to use for testing various Sticky Boom™ capture mechanisms on an air-bearing table. Peter worked with the 3D vision systems and figured out how to use them to track objects and then use the data from that to allow a small COTS robot arm (lent to us by Robai) to track that object in real time. The goal was to both have a system that could allow us to track targets for Sticky Boom capture tests, as well as that would allow us to extract position data for creating bounding boxes and keep-out geometry for teleoperated glovebox experiments. Shortly before his fatal climbing accident, Peter and Bill had gone to a local elementary school to teach the kids about robotics, and show off some of the work he had done so far. They had the kids line up as robotic links to teach them how a robot arm worked, and demoed the tracking algorithm by having kids wave a blue balloon around and having the arm chase it.
Peter was also helping us with our ARM BAA contract. Prior to the midterm report in October, Peter helped us put together some of the system-level CAD models for the report, such as this one:
After the interim report, when we switched gears to designing the hardware we were going to build for the final deliverable, Peter started in with sizing and sourcing the friction brakes and creating a mechanical model to support structural design of the three grasping arms. While we lost him before we could order the brakes, his design tools and brake selections ended up being what we used for sizing the final prototype hardware.
We were planning on also using Peter’s vision system work for mapping the boulder so the Prospector system could autonomously calculate the optimal positions for crouching the torso down onto the boulder, emplacing the jacking claws for prying the boulder off the surface, and then regrasping the boulder in free-flight post-extraction. After losing Peter, we found a group at Ball Aerospace that was working on space 3D vision systems that was willing to help us using their own IRAD funding. Though ultimately we ended up doing just a non-closed-loop scripted demo for the final demonstration in March, though we’re hoping to demo a fully closed-loop extraction at some point, as Ball and Altius IRAD priorities allow.
What Peter Was Like
Peter was one of the most impressive people I’ve had a chance to work with during my career in aerospace, even though he was only 25 at the time of his accident. I can’t do justice to him in a short description, but some of his best attributes were:
- Fearlessness: Both in the outdoors but also in engineering, Peter pretty much never showed fear. During a memorial his family did the week after his death, they showed a slideshow of pictures, including one of his favorite hangouts in a hammock up at the top of the Flatirons near Boulder. Me, I’m terrified of heights–Peter seemed perfectly at ease. In engineering, if Peter didn’t understand something, he’d just jump in and learn it. No problem we threw at him was something he was worried he couldn’t figure out.
- Dedication/Stubbornness: When Peter jumped into a new problem, he wasn’t going to let obstacles stand in his way. If someone’s code wasn’t doing what he wanted to do, he’d write his own, even if it meant burning the midnight oil multiple nights. Once he set his mind to a task, he’d absolutely refuse to stop until he had beaten it into submission.
- Fun Loving: Peter always had a goofy half-grin on his face when he was doing something he enjoyed. He had a sort of optimistic and adventurous spirit that pretty much everyone I knew who knew him loved.
- Helping Others: Peter was an Eagle Scout. He built homes for Habitat for Humanity. And he put in countless overtime hours preparing to teach and inspire a classroom of 2nd graders about robotics.
He was a talented programmer, a good budding robotics controls guy, rock solid at mechanical engineering and kinematics, and just the kind of guy that everyone loved working with. It was heartbraking losing him, and we had only known him for a few months.
For those of you who didn’t follow my previous notes about what happened, here’s the basic rundown of events leading up to Peter’s death on Longs Peak. It’s been six months, so I’m probably forgetting important details, but this gives a high level review of the tragic events.
- Peter had a group of hiking buddies he’d go climbing with while at CU Boulder. He had scaled Longs Peak (one of the deadliest 14ers in Colorado) several times with them, including one time he had solo’d and snow boarded down afterwards.
- He had tried to get a group together to scale Longs Peak that weekend, but most of his team had scattered after graduation from CU a few months earlier. When none of them could make it, he decided to climb the mountain by himself (as he had at least once before).
- That week ended up being one of the first major snowstorms of the winter. In spite of the crappy weather, he had set the goal to make it, so he didn’t turn back. He packed light intending to do a rapid summit and return. He was skilled at winter survival including snow caving and such, but decided to pack light in the hopes of being able to move quickly.
- The camera they found on him has a selfie video he took from the summit around 4:30pm the day he died. Normally for Longs Peak, people will camp out and start hiking around 5am so they can summit by noon and be back off the mountain by dark. Peter had persevered and reached the summit only shortly before nightfall. The winds were heavy and all around the summit you could see the snowclouds plowing through.
- On the way back down, about a 1/4 mile from the “Keyhole” Peter got off the trail, whether accidentally or intentionally, and was climbing above the normal trail across the “Narrows” (a narrow ledge leading about half a mile above sheer drop-offs), when he fell. The fall was over 600 feet and was probably instantly fatal.
- He had told some of his coworkers that he was going to climb Longs Peak on Sunday, and when he didn’t show up for work on Monday, we got worried. One of the other engineers had the wisdom to call the park rangers to check the trailhead, where they found his jeep.
- The weather for the next three days on the mountain was so bad that they couldn’t get search and rescue people above the timberline. Winds were gusting at well above 80 miles per hour with temperatures well below freezing. When the weather finally let up four days later, they were able to find Peter and recover his body.
I’m sorry if that description is a little antiseptic. That was one of the roughest weeks of my adult lifetime, hoping and praying that they’d find him, and eventually just praying that they’d be able to find his body so his family would have closure. I’m grateful for the search and rescue folks who risked their life to find him and return him home, even after it was clear that he hadn’t made it.
It’s always sad losing someone young like that. It’s even harder knowing that he was less than 1/4 mile from a place he could’ve holed up for the night and made it home safely. As his parent said though, he died doing what he loved, and while he made some poor decisions leading up to his fatal accident, they were mostly driven by the very attributes that made Peter the wonderful person that he was.