Joe's Big Idea
5:14 am
Fri August 3, 2012

Crazy Smart: When A Rocker Designs A Mars Lander

Originally published on Fri August 3, 2012 6:43 pm

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.

During 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 splat.

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.


So you won't be surprised to learn that this is a rather nerve-wracking time for Adam Steltzner, the EDL team leader.

"The 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.

He 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.

"We 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.

"If 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.

From Rock Star Dreams To Rocket Science

Steltzner's 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.

"I 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.

After 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

But 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.

"The 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.

The 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 governed it."

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.

"With 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."

I 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.

"I 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 sexy."

'Rover On A Rope': Crazy. Sexy. Cool.

He's 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 landing system.

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 enough.

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.

"This 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.

Produced for broadcast by Rebecca Davis.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This Sunday night, a six-wheeled rover - the size of a subcompact car - will land on Mars. To get us ready for the big event, NPR's Joe Palca went behind the scenes at NASA'S Jet Propulsion Laboratory here in Southern California. That's the home of mission control for the rover. Joe spent time with the leader of the NASA team that invented the rover's landing system. His story is part of a project called Joe's Big Idea. That project looks at how scientists and engineers take their best ideas and turn them into inventions.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: OK, I confess. I always wanted to see what it was really like in those NASA meetings where the engineers talk about how the mission is going, so I got a little tingle when they let me inside to watch one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK, folks. It's 8 o'clock and we've got some folks from NPR here this morning. Let's go ahead and get started and get a flight director report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. We're 19 days from landing. A sides continue to remain prime. Our CEB is online. B pans are...

PALCA: This is great stuff. I love this stuff. I don't know exactly what it means, but it sounds like everything is A-OK. A little later that morning, I went to a meeting of the landing team, and it was different.

Are one of you the (unintelligible)?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAM STELTZNER: Just so we're clear, it's not usually this - I mean, we're much more dour.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're toning it down for you. Yes.

PALCA: These guys clearly aren't holding back because I'm recording them. But make no mistake. These people know what they're doing. They're the ones in charge of the most critical part of the mission: making sure the rover lands gently and doesn't go splat.

STELTZNER: We are 19 days from landing. Is that freaky or what? Freaks me out to no end. Every time I say that, my back gets tight.

PALCA: That, my friends, is Adam Steltzner. He's the leader of this jolly band of freaked-out engineers. Steltzner isn't an engineer from Central Casting. Both ears are pierced. He's wearing snakeskin boots. The hair: unmistakably Elvis. His team has spent nearly 10 years together, designing, building, testing, tweaking, retesting and re-tweaking the system that will lower the rover called Curiosity gently to the Martian surface.

Think about it: The rover hits the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour. Seven minutes later, it's on the ground. It all happens so fast, so far away, there's nothing engineers on the ground could do if something goes wrong. It either works, or it doesn't. When it's all over, these are the folks who will either be heroes or the goats.

STELTZNER: So keeping our heads - I'm really talking to myself, here, but if any of you are sharing any of the emotional experience I am, keeping ourselves, like, you know, chill and focused and not freaking is a good thing to do.

PALCA: Wait a minute. Did I just hear that?

STELTZNER: Sharing any of the emotional experiences I am...

PALCA: Sharing my emotional experience?

STELTZNER: Freaking.

PALCA: Freaking?

STELTZNER: Chill.

PALCA: Chill? Where is this guy coming from? Well, the answer is the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was born in 1963. Now he lives in a small house a few miles from JPL.

STELTZNER: Come on in.

PALCA: He greets me at the door with his two pit bulls...

STELTZNER: They're extremely friendly.

PALCA: ...Monkey and Moomoo.

STELTZNER: Sit. Monkey, good girl. Wait. Let's just chill it out.

PALCA: Clearly, this man is trying to extend the chill vibe as far as it will go right now. His eclectic tastes are on display everywhere in his house. His exotic garden has fish peppers and kiefir limes.

STELTZNER: There's a very, very, very bright aromatic flavor to it and aroma. Is that incredible or what? I love it.

PALCA: Steltzner's kitchen is crammed with jams and flavored liqueurs he makes himself. When he was a kid in the Bay Area, flower power was blossoming and Americans were landing on the moon. But for Steltzner, a career in space exploration wasn't on the agenda. He told me he struggled at school. An elementary school principal told him he wasn't very bright. His high school experience seemed to confirm that.

STELTZNER: I passed my geometry class the second time with an F-plus, because the teacher just didn't want to see me again.

PALCA: His father told him he'd never amount to anything but a ditch digger. He still remembers that remark. School just wasn't a priority. He was focused on getting his social education.

STELTZNER: So I was sort of studying sex, drugs and rock and roll in high school.

PALCA: So not what you'd call a pocket-protector kid with, you know, pens and slide rules and stuff.

STELTZNER: No. I had sort of shoulder-length hair, liked to wear this strange Air Force jumpsuit. And my first car was a '69 Cadillac hearse that somehow I convinced my parents was a good idea to buy me. And I put a bed in the back of it.

PALCA: Talk about a night to remember.

STELTZNER: That's right.

PALCA: You were probably more...

STELTZNER: Well, I was younger. It was a different time.

PALCA: After high school, the plan was to be a rock star. While he waited for stardom, he played in Bay Area clubs - watching his friends graduate, go off to college, graduate from college, and start their careers. But then something happened. As Adam tells it, he was on his way home from playing music as a club one night, when he became fascinated with the stars, especially the constellation of Orion.

STELTZNER: The 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. And I had only some vague recollection from my high school time that something was moving with respect to something else, but I really - that was it.

PALCA: As crazy as it sounds, that was enough to motivate him to take a physics course at the local community college. And that did it. He was hooked. The fog of sex drugs and rock and roll evaporated. He had to know all about the laws that govern the universe. The rocker wound up with a PhD in engineering physics.

STELTZNER: I was totally turned on by this idea of understanding my world. And engineering gave me an opportunity to be gainfully employed, really understanding my world with these laws and equations that governed it. Totally in.

PALCA: There's something practical that you were working for.

STELTZNER: Yes. Absolutely.

PALCA: Because there's something to show for it at the end of the day.

STELTZNER: Very, very, very much something to show for it at the end of the day. 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.

PALCA: Did it have to be space, or could it have been designing waste treatment facilities?

STELTZNER: So, that's a great question. The answer of it is I grew up in an era where space was revered. Right? So I think there's a kind of natural ego drive to be involved in something so sexy. And I came from rock and roll, which clearly was - there's a lot of sexy in rock-n-roll. And so it could have been a waste treatment, but I also needed a little bit of sexy.

PALCA: He got the sexy, but Steltzner's added a bit of crazy to the mix as well, especially when it comes to the design he and his team invented for getting that rover to land safely on Mars. The system's not a glider, it's not an inflatable airbag - it's 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.

STELTZNER: And, you know, it ends up being we've come to really love this system.

PALCA: And as Adam will be the first to tell you, he didn't invent it all by himself.

STELTZNER: This is way bigger than any one person, way bigger than any five, 10, 20, 100, right? At one point there was almost 2,000 people working on this project. 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.

PALCA: On Sunday night Adam and his team learn if their crazy, wacky landing system delivered Curiosity safely to the surface of Mars. Or not. Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORION")

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.