Looking to the stars for inspiration

March 20, 2009
By: Dan Davis

If it's one thing that I'm certain of, it's that highly educated people will have the best chance of achieving standards of living that exceed that of their parents, a scenario that many in today's world see slipping from their collective grasp. This belief pertains to skilled trades as well; specialized skills open the doors to higher paychecks.

I was thinking of this when I was talking with Dr. Steve Squyres, the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, who was in Rockford, Ill., on Wednesday evening to address the Rockford Chamber of Commerce at its Manufacturers Appreciation Dinner and Expo. He had mentioned that he had visited Forest City Gear, Roscoe, Ill.—a company that supplied gears for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity—earlier in the day and said how much he enjoyed seeing the people behind the parts.

So I asked him what he hoped the legacy of the Mars missions would be. He replied, I hope that there is someone in the fifth grade looking around on the Internet or watching the Discovery Channel and they find out about the Mars rovers and think that they can do a better job.

He"s talking inspiration. And in his discussion of the red planet, he does inspire. In fact, I"ve got Roving Mars in my Netflix queue and plan to watch it with the family after spring break.

But Squyres doesn"t get caught up in scientific discussions and drawn-out stories about investigatory processes. He concentrates on real issues and is able to elevate simple discoveries into huge celebrations of success.

[Mars] is cool. Everyone gets it. It"s about what we are doing on this other planet, he said. It"s kind of difficult to talk with an eighth-grader about gamma-ray spectrometry.

Here"s an example. The two rovers had to be pretty compact to fit into their separate lander packages that had to survive an impact with Mars" surface. As a result, when the rovers emerged from their broken shells, they had to go through a sort of reverse origami, where all the different parts had to unfold from a mechanical fetal position. A jack underneath the rovers lifted the units up so that the wheels could emerge. The front two wheels didn"t simply extend out; the wheel supports had to unfold once&meash;imagine elbows unfolding from a folded position at the chest—and then the wheels had to unfurl to meet the ground and stabilize the rover. That"s a lot of mechanical connections that can"t fail, and if they do, you"ve got a multimillion-dollar project failure that doesn"t look too good on a resume.

Yet someone is responsible for many of those types of parts. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a manufacturing shop in Pasadena, Calif., but still relies on outside vendors.

There"s not one unnecessary part on our rovers. Every gear, every bracket, and every wire—behind every one of those parts was a person that took responsibility for it, Squyres said.

Go figure. Metal fabrication is rocket science.

That"s a message that should fire up the next generation of engineers, skilled tradespeople, and scientists. And I really do think all of those occupations should be held in the same esteem. As I learned, they are all necessary when you are trying to reach the stars.

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Dan Davis

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