Forget the sky - the Red Planet's the limit for a former Del Norter. Christopher Rogers, a 2002 graduate of Del Norte High School, played a hands-on role in the assembly and testing of almost every detail on NASA's latest Mars rover, Curiosity, that recently touched down on the Martian landscape.
Rogers was hard-pressed to think of the few aspects that he didn't physically touch or handle for the car-sized Curiosity, the rover for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) space probe mission, which in August successfully landed the most advanced vehicle to ever tread on Mars.
"It was a huge collaboration of some of the most amazing engineers I'll ever be able to work with," Rogers said in an interview with the Triplicate from his home in San Jose. "It was the best experience of my life."
Right place at right time
A knack for engineering runs in Rogers' family of carpenters, woodworkers and machinists. When he was 16, he rebuilt a 1976 Cutlass Supreme with his father. He's currently working on a custom-built chopper with his father.
He developed an interest in space exploration during his time at Del Norte High, checkingNASA.govon a regular basis. He enrolled in the aerospace engineering program at Cal Poly, and in 2007, a friendly conversation over billiards and beers led to an opportunity of a lifetime.
"You know how people say it's all about being in the right place at the right time? Or it's all about who you know? There's a lot more truth to that than you would expect," Rogers said.
After expressing an interest in NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission at the watering hole, Rogers learned that the father of his pool opponent worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, NASA's primary center for development of robotic spacecraft.
The exchange landed Rogers summer internships in 2007 and 2008 with JPL's sub-systems avionics team for MSL, which was in charge of developing the flight model boxes that house the aviation electronic systems for the spacecraft that delivered the rover.
The first year, he mostly learned the ropes of the system, doing a lot of ordering parts and delivering coffee. Toward the end of the first year, he was tasked with checking the schematics drawings for the flight model boxes - even though, as an aerospace engineering student, his education could be likened to "electronic engineering 101," he said. "It was pretty overwhelming."
During the 2007 internship, Rogers was mostly working with designs on paper, but by the time he had returned for his 2008 internship, "these boxes had magically appeared," he said. Then it was time to send the flight model boxes through the environmental testing that simulated space-flight conditions.
Best wheels on Mars
The Curiosity is a huge improvement from previous robotic Mars rovers like the skateboard-sized Sojourner that touched down in 1997 and the quad-sized Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed in 2003. Curiosity is equipped with a mobile lab - the next best thing to having a team of scientists on the ground.
"The real new thing for this rover is the ability to drill into rocks on Mars, collect powder from those rocks and deliver that powder to relatively large analytical chemistry laboratories that are located inside the rover itself," said MSL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada in a video on NASA.gov. Using that powder, the rover lab can determine what minerals and chemicals are present. "This will really give the scientists the core information they'll need to figure out whether Mars was a habitable environment."
Rogers' team tested the limits of the flight model boxes, attempting to mimic the conditions the parts would experience during launch, space travel and entry into Mars' atmosphere.
The boxes were placed in testing rooms with temperatures ranging from -58 to 120 degrees. The entire time, Rogers' team made sure the electronics were functioning properly.
He also took the boxes through "vibration testing" used to simulate conditions during launch and descent.
"Basically you shake the crap out of the box," he said. "You want to make sure it's not going to break and fall apart."
When all of the environmental testing was complete, Rogers hand-delivered the flight model boxes to the ATLO team to start piecing the entire operation together.
Although Rogers started on the MSL as an intern working on the avionics team, he graduated college in 2009 and was asked to participate in the final assembly process called Assembly Test and Launch Operation - ATLO for short.
For ATLO, when all of the separate projects and instruments came together to build the space-ready Curiosity, Rogers was an "electrical integration and test engineer." Since every component operates on electricity, his team was involved with almost everything including the rover's robotic arm, suspension system, and a laser.
For testing of the six-wheel "rocker-bogie" suspension system, Rogers and his colleagues spent hours physically maneuvering the wheels to see how they would handle climbing over objects.
"You are literally standing there holding all six wheels and pushing and pulling them different directions, and that mobility unit is not light," he said.
When testing the clearance of the robotic arm, Rogers often was "manning the big red button," which would shut the arm down before it collided with another piece of the rover.
Watching the landing
When the rover was approaching its Mars landing in early August, Rogers' involvement was long over. He watched it online from San Jose with a bottle of wine he had been saving since 2008.
"I got to watch all of my old co-workers cheering and screaming online, and I was cheering at my house," he said.
There is not much NASA can do while the rover approaches landing because of a seven-minute delay in finding out what has transpired.
"You get information that's already happened, so you can't react because it's already happened," Rogers said. "It was by far the most nerve-wracking moment of my life."
The size of Curiosity required different tactics than previous rovers, like a plutonium-powered electrical system, and an alternative landing gear to the large air bags used on past missions.
The landing involved the use of a rocket jet pack that flew the rover down, lowered it on a tether and released it. Then the jet pack flew off into space.
Curiosity landed in Gale Crater, because of diverse sediment there that should provide a sufficient range of data for NASA to determine if life ever existed on Mars. Plans call for the rover to cover 12 miles of ground during a 23-month mission.
Rogers no longer has immediate family in Del Norte County, but after living here 13 years, he has close friends in Del Norte he considers family. He sometimes misses the redwoods and the Smith River, which he calls the cleanest in North America.
"It's just beautiful; I'm not really a city guy," he said.
He feels fortunate to be a part of the MSL process, and values the emphasis that JPL puts on using interns and mentoring people through participation on projects.
"It's the reason why I'm such a valued employee at my new position," he said.
He's now working as a test conductor at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field on the Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environmental Explorer, which is scheduled to launch in 2013 to explore the lunar environment.
"I would not be in a lead position on my second project out of college if it wasn't for what I learned at MSL," he said.
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com .