An interview with considered one of NASA's Curiosity Rover engineers

Together with his Elvis haircut, his fondness for cowboy boots and the best way he’ll launch into soliloquies about massive concepts like methods to bend humanity towards collective self-enchancment, Adam Steltzner may come off at first as some sort of hipster thinker.

That is one of many issues that makes him such a memorable ambassador for NASA, his employer.

Steltzner is in truth an engineer with an unbelievable mixture of geek cred and California cool who this October could have spent 25 years working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He seems like a rock star — performs bass guitar, in truth — and may forcefully insist on humanity’s crucial to discover the celebs and to press towards the bounds of the recognized universe with little prompting.

When he talks up the formidable tasks on the drafting board at JPL, he describes the place as a type of mental and engineering fight zone. One the place complicated designs and the profitable execution of missions are the results of sensible scientists and engineers bashing their concepts towards one another.

“We’re recognized for having a really intellectually aggressive tradition,” he laughs. “I simply got here out of an all-day evaluate yesterday with individuals from outdoors, from NASA headquarters, they usually have been chuckling at occasions as a result of our interplay might be such a full-bore, naked-knuckled brawl.”

Small marvel, given the scope of a few of the tasks JPL has on the docket in the intervening time.

Steltzner’s present obligations embrace serving as chief engineer for the Mars 2020 challenge — a plan to ship one other rover to the pink planet in 2020, this time with devices that may acquire samples of rock and soil and hermetically seal them for a future mission that may retrieve them and convey them house. That challenge may even supply a deeper take a look at the potential for all times on Mars, Steltzner explains, by characterizing the geology and habitability of the Mars setting and to assist put together it for eventual human exploration.

The design of the Mars 2020 rover is predicated partially on that of Curiosity, the rover for which Steltzner a couple of years in the past oversaw the group that designed the hardware for the “entry, descent and touchdown” part. It was such a technical achievement — sending a car hurtling by means of area and setting it down gently on the Mars floor — that Steltzner has revealed a ebook about Curiosity, referred to as The Proper Type of Loopy.

An interview with one of NASA's Curiosity Rover engineers

Engaged on Curiosity within the JPL Spacecraft Meeting Facility

It particulars a few of the challenges, setbacks and excessive-stress moments that got here with the event of Curiosity’s Sky Crane touchdown system. That enterprise, he writes, taught him and his group quite a bit — that engineering duties are depending on “truthfully dealing with the arduous knowledge,” and that in a corporation as sprawling and sophisticated as NASA, one of the best issues are “too difficult to have a clear equation that describes them.”

In the meantime, he is obtained a lot extra to maintain him busy. Steltzner’s additionally engaged on a brand new sort of parachute that may assist carry people to Mars, and creating robotics techniques that shall be used to discover Europa and Enceladus — the moons of Jupiter and Saturn thought to have the perfect probability of internet hosting alien life.

“This is what I consider to be true,” Steltzner tells Engadget. “Our human curiosity is considered one of our biggest attributes, and an outgrowth of that curiosity is our want to discover that which we have no idea. I haven’t got one thing like an excellent enterprise mannequin about why we should always discover area — the truth is, there’s an previous aerospace adage that goes, ‘The best way to make a small fortune in aerospace is to start out with a big one.’

“What I do know is that once we discover, it makes us higher. It makes us greater, and that’s profound. Take into consideration that. What’s the impact culturally, societally, if everyone sits only a tiny bit taller due to one thing we do right here? That is to not be undersold. It is troublesome to quantify. I can not offer you ‘Oh, the GDP goes up by 1 % when everyone seems to be impressed to be a bit extra and to attempt to perform a little extra,’ however the impact is profound.”

The mysteries of the galaxy are certainly so profound that they satisfied a younger man who grew up in Sausalito, California, enjoying bass for a number of bands, to do one thing totally different together with his life.

Coming residence from a gig one night time, Steltzner discovered himself preoccupied by the distinct and altering patterns of the celebs he noticed above him. He’d by no means proven a lot of a predilection for science and math as a scholar, besides, one thing nagged at him — to the purpose that he determined to enroll in a close-by group school, signing up for a physics course.

An interview with one of NASA's Curiosity Rover engineers

He transferred to the College of California, Davis, after a number of years and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering and design. It was the beginning of a preoccupation with the celebs that is formed his profession and finally introduced him to NASA, to a coterie of like-minded area geeks working to discover the subsequent frontier.

“It is a huge deal,” Steltzner says of Mars 2020. “It is a part of the science group, the place each 10 years we do a survey and ask a analysis council, ‘What ought to we be doing?’ They have been telling us we have to deliver samples again from Mars, in order that’s on monitor now. It is truly a terrific alternative, as a result of we’re leveraging a number of the heritage and spare elements from the Curiosity rover.

“We simply completed our PDR, our preliminary design assessment, at first of [February], and we’re steaming forward. There are a pair hundred individuals engaged on a variety of actions and efforts. As chief engineer, I float. I spend virtually all my time sitting in a room speaking to different individuals a few technical drawback. About making an attempt to know if we have now a staffing shortfall. I search for holes and fill them myself if I can, or get individuals to maneuver into jobs and transfer on to the subsequent gap. I am type of a free security, because it have been.”

Based in 1936, right now JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Know-how. It has a workforce of greater than 5,000 and received $250 million for the Mars 2020 rover as a part of the newest NASA price range Congress accredited.

An interview with one of NASA's Curiosity Rover engineers

One factor that helps maintain curiosity alive within the group’s deliberate expeditions is how deeply a fascination with area has seeped into the zeitgeist. It additionally helps that non-public corporations have emerged and begun to attain thrilling successes on their very own, with customized rockets and launches that turn into splashy media occasions.

For his half, Steltzner says he is keen about personal area ventures like Blue Origin and SpaceX.

“I really like the privateers — I completely l-o-v-e love them,” he says. “As a result of they’re prepared to do issues in a different way. They’re invigorating area. Having stated that, the problem they face is in the long run, ultimately, sometime they should reply to buyers who need them to be worthwhile endeavors. And which will sometime exhaust their power. However deliver it on. Adam Smith was proper: Competitors is admittedly essential.”

So is maintaining the general public enthusiastic about area. It is why JPL lately commissioned an attractive collection of retro-wanting area-themed journey posters, created in partnership with Seattle-based mostly design agency Invisible Creature. “Go to the Historic Websites … Mars … A number of Excursions Out there,” reads one, presenting rockets in flight and designed in a method that makes you assume you can be wanting on the creation of a Madison Avenue advert store within the ’50s.

An interview with one of NASA's Curiosity Rover engineers

It is also why Steltzner wrote his ebook. He insists that the sustainability of the human race is dependent upon our willingness to pursue schemes that sound loopy however are “the proper of loopy” — issues like sending rovers to Mars that would pave the best way for eventual human habitation of the planet.

“We discover as a gesture of humanity,” he writes. “We do it as a result of we will, and we do it as an affirmation of who and what we’re. As a society, if we ever cease exploring, who will we be? I feel we shall be stagnant — not innovating, not constructing. It is a method not only for stagnation however for catastrophe. Which is why nurturing and supporting innate curiosity continues to be probably the most helpful survival instruments we’ve.”

[Images: AP/Damian Dovarganes (Steltzner / Lead); NASA/JPL-Caltech (Spacecraft Assembly Facility); Nick_Rowland/Flickr (Starry sky); Nasa (Mars rover, Space Tourism posters)]