Mustangs to Mars : Cal Poly Engineering alums play a key role with Martian rover
At least 30 Cal Poly Engineering alums have been working remotely – more than 100 million miles from their job site: the Mars Science Laboratory.
These hands-on, minds-on grads are part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team that engineered Curiosity, the next-generation rover whose wondrous touchdown on Mars is matched only by the lofty goals of her mission. Packed with super high-tech science gear and powered by nuclear batteries, Curiosity will help scientists unearth Mars’ mysteries. As she settles into her two-year mission, the SUV-sized rover will traverse up to about 660 feet per day; gather, test and analyze soil and rock samples; and, ultimately, climb up the side of the three-mile-high Mount Sharp. The epic journey will help researchers investigate Mars’ climate, geology and its watery past, and, in the Gale Crater area, see if conditions have ever been capable of supporting microbial life.
“As Cal Poly might say, Curiosity was ‘Sol One Ready,” said Ken Diaz (B.S., M.S., Aerospace Engineering, 2006), referring to the Martian day, called a sol, and the school’s industry reputation for graduating Day One Ready engineers. In the past year alone Diaz has seen his roles transition with the project from cruise/surface phase systems engineer, to flight director to tactical downlink lead.
“I was hired in 2006, and I feel privileged to have had a front-row seat to so many phases and aspects of this mission.
“I participated in the early integration and testing of the flight and non-flight hardware and software, and saw the spacecraft launched – which, like the landing, was an event I’ll never forget. After launch, I joined the Cruise Phase Engineering Operations team, which was responsible for operating the spacecraft during its transit from Earth to Mars, and I split my time between the flight director and systems engineer consoles. I was fortunate enough to be the systems engineer in the control room on landing night. Currently I’m on the Surface Phase Engineering Operations team.”
“It’s not uncommon to see Cal Poly grads in engineering leadership positions,” said Leslie Livesay – who should know. The College of Science and Math alumna (B.S., Mathematics, 1985) is JPL’s director of engineering and science, overseeing more than 3,000 engineers, scientists and technologists.
“More than 3,000 people have worked on this mission,” said Chaz Morantz (B.S., Aerospace Engineering, 2009), engineering uplink lead. “There’s huge pressure knowing that you have been entrusted with what it has taken thousands of people before you to build.
“Cal Poly is really good at creating engineers who take initiative,” said Chaz Morantz (B.S., Aerospace Engineering, 2009), engineering uplink lead. “We can be thrown into the fire, adapt, take charge, figure out what needs to be done and do it. That’s highly valued at JPL where most projects are new in many ways, with a lot of novel problems. Cal Poly engineers excel in that environment.”
Said Matt Heverly (B.S., Mechanical Engineering, 1999), lead rover driver: “This is real Lewis and Clark stuff. The rover is just a tool. It’s still humans exploring Mars.”
Tracy Van Houten (B.S., Aerospace Engineering, 2004), project system and mission system verification and validation systems engineer, dreamed of working in just such an environment from an early age.
“I decided I wanted to be at JPL when I was 15. I felt a passion about space, and I liked that everything JPL does is first of its kind. It’s always pushing forward our knowledge of the sciences, and that’s a frontier where I want to be.
“Cal Poly’s whole Learn by Doing process is an ideal match for JPL. It prepared me very well for jumping into situations where there are no easy answers, and everything you do is new.
“The marvel of the Curiosity landing has reinvigorated the public’s interest in the space program, and is showing the value of robotic exploration. This mission is engaging people – especially young people – in ways that have never been seen before because of Internet access and opportunities for social media interaction.”
Recalls Morantz: “The chief engineer gave us a pep talk before landing. He said this might be the most complicated endeavor that mankind has ever attempted. No one person understands it all. No one can grasp the entire complexity of what we’re working on. We have to trust each other, interface with each other. That’s the miracle of it. Truly a collaborative project.”
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Curiosity Explores Mars http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/
Mars Exploration Program http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/
Live from NASA JPL: Mars Rover Curiosity Landing http://news.discovery.com/space/live-mars-rover-curiosity-landing-120802.html
New York Times on Matt Heverly ("Mow Yard. Drop Off Kids. Take a Drive on Mars") http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/science/space/steering-a-rover-on-mars.html?_r=1
ASME News, with quotes from Rius Billing (B.S., engineering technology, 1989), MDA Information Systems http://www.asme.org/kb/news---articles/articles/aerospace---defense/curiosity-explores-the-red-planet