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EPISODE: The Engineering Physics Department Newsletter


Fall / Winter 2008-2009
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Unique tool enables vibration researchers to think BIG

Todd Allen named first scientific director of national nuclear research facility

Weighing alternatives: Models inform worldwide nuclear energy choices

Text, animations help students master statics

Kulcinski advises NASA on human challenges in space programs

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* Alum bridges the NASA generation gap
* Adam Steltzner engineers Mars exploration
* James E. Rushton receives 2008 COE Distinguished Achievement Award

Adam Steltzner engineers Mars exploration

Adam Steltzner

Adam Steltzner
(Larger image)

Decorative initial cap The most intricately designed, ambitious vehicle in the NASA Mars rover series, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) should launch in 2009. As chief engineer and development manager for the MSL entry descent and landing phase, Adam Steltzner ensures the vehicle lands safely.

Like its predecessors, the MSL will have a mast with a pointable remote-sensing system and an arm that can place science instruments directly on the Mars surface. In addition, this third-generation rover will boast a souped-up suite of instruments with functions that include detecting subsurface water, observing the weather, measuring space-to-surface radiation flux, and coring and analyzing rock samples, among others. The extra technology also means more weight and a larger rover than the earlier iterations.

For the previous vehicles—the Mars Exploration Rovers—Steltzner was in charge of all the mechanical engineering elements of entry, descent and landing. In 2004, he was among the scientists and engineers featured on the NOVA episode “MARS Dead or Alive,” which chronicled the process that ultimately delivered the rovers Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. (View the episode at

Now, he and his team design, build and fly the systems that, at 50 miles above Mars, will slow the new rover from a speed of nearly 15,000 miles per hour and deliver it safely to the planet’s surface. “The technical job of designing and developing these complex engineering systems is challenging and very rewarding to me,” says Steltzner. “There are very few days when I don’t have a moment or two to think as hard as I possibly can. I like that.”

Steltzner, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Davis and a master’s degree from the California Institute of Technology, says today’s engineers must think critically to extend their skills and influence outside their area of specific expertise.

“As our world gets more technologically complex, the number of challenges that we face that are multidisciplined are growing,” he says. “There are a great deal of opportunities for those who can think ‘across the boxes’ as well as outside the box.”

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Date last modified: Friday, 16-January-2009 11:49:00 CDT
Date created: 16-January-2009