This is what takes place tonight at 10:31 pm California time. AMAZING!
From Rock Star Dreams To Rocket Science
Yearning, seeking more
Finding purpose in the stars
Our minds soar with God
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 10:31 pm California time whether all that teamwork invented a landing system able to withstand the hazards Mars can throw at it.
Read the entire article Produced for broadcast by Rebecca Davis.