March 7, 2022

More than 242 million miles from College Station, Texas, two recently deployed explorers scour Mars’ unforgiving surface like a modern-day Lewis and Clark. Their names: Perseverance and Ingenuity. The former is a six-wheeled rover with 19 cameras and a cache of rock and dirt samples for a future return mission. The latter is a solar-powered helicopter comparable in size to a mass-market drone but with an $80 million price tag.

Every day of their respective missions, these robotic travelers take pictures and beam them back to their home on Earth, where scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) process the images, gather meaningful data and deliver directions for the robots to traverse the Red Planet. Software developer Bob Deen ’87 is a veteran at JPL, having worked at the research juggernaut since he graduated from Texas A&M University. After spending the last decades helping parse out images from the final frontier, he and his wife, Gwen, planned an estate gift that will establish scholarships to inspire future Aggies to further explore and protect their home planet.

Where No Man Has Gone Before

Just outside Dallas in the suburb of Richardson, Texas, a teenage Bob Deen spent his summers working with his father using computers to help people with their taxes. At the dawn of desktop computing, he took to coding in his spare time, testing the boundaries of what his Apple II could do. “I quickly came across the limitations of BASIC, the accessible computer language,” Deen said, “so I started programming my CPU [central processing unit] directly using the low-level assembly language.” Working with an entrepreneur he met at a computer club, he wrote several software packages that the entrepreneur’s company sold. “It just came easy.”

Worth a Thousand Words

Founded in 1936 as a small research team testing rockets for the U.S. Army, JPL became NASA’s primary spacecraft center in the late ’50s. In his more than 30 years at JPL, Deen’s work has focused on the software side of operations, particularly image processing. Much of space exploration and research involves the collecting and transmitting of high-quality images across great distances, requiring specialized tools to gather, analyze and disseminate visual data across NASA and to the public.

“I was quite proud at the time, and I still am. My code is ephemeral; it will go away eventually. But to have helped with such historic missions—that’s a legacy I can live with.”
Bob Deen '87

The software developer’s projects included the Magellan probe, which mapped out the surface of Venus using radar technology, and processing images from the pioneering Spirit and Opportunity rovers and their descendant missions. In addition to creating composite mosaics from multiple pictures and adding optical corrections to the rovers’ images, Deen and his colleagues have used processes such as stereo imaging to deliver relevant data about Mars’ terrain for the rovers’ “drivers.”

One of Deen’s early projects was maintaining the Video Image Communication and Retrieval, or VICAR, a software system first developed in 1966 to process images from unmanned spacecraft. “As far as we know, it’s the oldest continually updated image processing system in the world,” he said. Little of the system’s original code remains, partially because Deen rewrote much of its core library soon after he was hired. “Looking back, I’m not sure why they let such a fresh face redo their system’s infrastructure, but it worked.”

When the Voyager 2 probe sailed past Neptune in 1989, its first detailed images of the gas giant were delivered through Deen’s code. “I was quite proud at the time, and I still am. My code is ephemeral; it will go away eventually. But to have helped with such historic missions—that’s a legacy I can live with.”

One Small Step

Decades into living out his dreams at JPL, Deen and his wife, Gwen, began thinking about leaving a different kind of legacy. “We started working on our wills, which may seem premature because I’m only 56,” he said. “But we don’t have any kids, unless you count furry ones, and we wanted to put our remaining assets to good use.” Having never forgotten the impact of his President’s Endowed Scholarship, he immediately thought of Texas A&M.

Gwen and Bob Deen '87 are paying Bob's education forward through a President's Endowed Scholarship, which they hope will inspire future Aggies to protect planet Earth.

After reaching out to the Texas A&M Foundation, the Deens planned a gift in their will that would cover their family’s needs before establishing one or more Gwen and Bob Deen ’87 President’s Endowed Scholarships. “The bequest model allows us to give without compromising our financial security,” Deen said. The couple even customized their gift to support one of their personal passions by designating their scholarships for future students whose studies will focus on advancing sustainability, such as environmental engineering.

“The environment is very important to us,” Deen shared. “We believe it’s the most significant problem facing our civilization.” With their bequest, the Deens hope to not only give Aggies the same magnificent opportunities Bob received, but also do their part to care for the pale, blue dot we all call home.

To learn more about the President’s Endowed Scholarship program or how you can establish a gift through a bequest, contact Angela Throne ’03 at the bottom of this page.