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Steltzner led the NASA team that dreamed up a new way to land on Mars.
He's seen here at JPL on Aug. 2 using a scale model to explain how the
rover Curiosity will land on the red planet.
It's called the seven minutes of terror. In just
seven minutes, NASA's latest mission to Mars, a new six-wheeled rover
called Curiosity, must go from 13,000 mph as it enters the Martian
atmosphere to a dead stop on the surface.
those seven minutes, the rover is on its own. Earth is too far away for
radio signals to make it to Mars in time for ground controllers to do
anything. Everything in the system known as EDL — for Entry, Descent and
Landing — must work perfectly, or Curiosity will not so much land as go
The team that invented the EDL system
has spent nearly 10 years together, designing, building, testing,
tweaking, retesting and retweaking. Now all they can do is sit and wait
to see if their design works.
Because the new Mars
rover is five times heavier than its predecessors, NASA had to come up
with a totally new landing system. Here's a step-by-step look at how it
is supposed to work.
To continue reading click "read more" below
So you won't be surprised to learn that this is a rather nerve-wracking time for Adam Steltzner, the EDL team leader.
product of nine years of my life will be put to the test Sunday
evening," Steltzner told me when I visited him at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in late July. "And so that is personally anxiety provoking."
I don't know about you, but I tend to think of engineers as serious buttoned-down types. Steltzner is anything but.
has pierced ears, wears snakeskin boots and sports an Elvis haircut.
He's quick to laugh and curious about everything. Steltzner's laid-back
style makes team meetings a jolly affair. I stopped by one of those
meetings during my visit. The jollity was still there, but it was clear
that the prelanding tension was rising.
are 19 days from landing," he told his team. "Is that freaky or what?
Freaks me out to no end. Every time I say that, my back gets tight."
Steltzner had some advice for his colleagues.
any of you are sharing any of the emotional experience I am, keeping
ourselves, like, chill, and focused and not freaking, is a good thing to
do," he said.
Watch Steltzner and
others at NASA explain the hair-raising sequence of events that must go
perfectly right in order for Curiosity to land safely on Mars on Sunday
From Rock Star Dreams To Rocket Science
path to becoming team leader for this new Mars lander was hardly
direct. Unlike many successful engineers, he struggled at school. An
elementary school principal told him he wasn't very bright. His high
school experience seemed to confirm that.
"I passed my geometry class the second time with an F plus, because the teacher just didn't want to see me again," he says.
His father told him he'd never amount to anything but a ditch digger, a remark he still carries with him years later.
Maybe that's because school wasn't a priority, particularly with the distractions of the flower-power era in the Bay Area.
was sort of studying sex, drugs and rock and roll in high school," says
Steltzner. It wasn't just the long hair. "I liked to wear this strange
Air Force jump suit. And my first car was a '69 Cadillac hearse. I put a
bed in the back."
Talk about a night to remember. "Well, I was younger. It was a different time," says Steltzner.
high school, the plan was to be a rock star. While he waited for
stardom, Steltzner played bass guitar in Bay Area bands, watching his
friends graduate and go off to college.
Finding Purpose In The Stars
then something happened. As Steltzner tells it, he was on his way home
from playing music at a club one night when he became fascinated with
the stars, especially the constellation of Orion.
fact that it was in a different place in the sky at night when I
returned home from playing a gig, than it had been when I'd driven out
to the gig," he said. "And I had only some vague recollection from my
high school time that something was moving with respect to something
else, but that was it."
As crazy as it
sounds, that experience was enough to motivate him to take a physics
course at the local community college. That did it. He was hooked.
fog of sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifted. He had to know all about
the laws that govern the universe. The rocker wound up with a doctoral
degree in engineering physics.
"I was totally
turned on by this idea of understanding my world," Steltzner said.
"Engineering gave me an opportunity to be gainfully employed [and]
really understanding my world with these laws and equations that
After years of being somewhat
aimless, he was glad to be involved in something more practical, a
career that produced something tangible at the end of the day.
music, how your band is thought of has to do with how you dress, and
who you open for, or who opens for you," he said. "That ephemeral, not
really able to get a solid understanding of good and bad was tough for
me, and the thing that engineering and physics gave me was this idea
that there was a right answer, and I could get to it."
asked Steltzner whether he would have been just as happy getting to the
right answer while designing waste-treatment facilities. Did it have to
be something as glamorous as designing a landing system for a Mars
probe? He thought for a minute before he answered.
grew up in an era where space was revered," he said. "So I think
there's a kind of natural ego drive to be involved in something so sexy.
And I came from rock 'n' roll, and there's a lot of sexy in rock 'n'
roll. So in terms of, really, just what I would need to measure myself,
it could have been waste treatment, but I also needed a little bit of
Steltzner and his colleagues considered several options before hitting upon the 'sky crane' concept.
'Rover On A Rope': Crazy. Sexy. Cool.
got the sexy, but Steltzner has added a dash of crazy to the mix,
especially when it comes to the design he and his team invented for the
A totally new Mars landing
system was needed because other systems, including the airbags used on
earlier rovers, were considered too wimpy to land Curiosity safely. The
craft is the biggest rover yet, weighing in at more than 2,000 pounds —
about five times as heavy as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers sent to
Mars in 2003. Then there's the pesky Martian atmosphere. It's too thin
to make parachutes alone effective, and too thick to make rocket brakes
So Steltzner's team came up with a
kind of rocket-powered platform that hovers over the Martian surface and
lowers Curiosity down on a cable — a system that was once derisively
referred to as "rover on a rope."
Crazy, but to an engineer, crazy smart.
"It ends up being we've come to really love this system," he said.
And as Steltzner will be the first to tell you, he didn't invent it all by himself.
is way bigger than any one person, way bigger than any five, 10, 20,
100. At one point, there were almost 2,000 people working on this
project," he said. "So to bring all those people together takes some
teaming. And also, I like people. So bringing that sense of togetherness
together is important for me."
We'll know on
Sunday night California time whether all that teamwork invented a
landing system able to withstand the hazards Mars can throw at it.