NASA lab director lectures on Curiosity, signs memorandum with Tech

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in the Clough Commons on Wednesday, Sept. 5, Dr. Charles Elachi tried to sum up the mission that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in early August.

“It’s crazy. Its a hundred thousand thought-out calculations, and it still sounds crazy,” Elachi said.

Elachi, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), came to Tech last Wednesday to tell the story of the Curiosity rover and to announce that the Institute would be one of its 10 new strategic partners for hiring.

According to Elachi, this partnership means that JPL will begin interviewing Tech students this year and giving out a limited number of summer internships and other job opportunities to the best and brightest in respective fields.

JPL, based in Pasadena, Calif., has been responsible for many of the nation’s deep space exploration missions since the first American satellite was launched in 1958.  The lab oversaw the development of the Curiosity mission.

Curiosity made its landing last month on Aug. 5 after a nine-month journey through space, marking a massive achievement for science and engineering. The mission control group for the project, which included four Tech graduates, faced a number of obstacles pertaining primarily to navigation, telecommunications and technology.

“The key thing is having to learn from your mistakes […] The first six missions to the moon, we missed the moon,” Elachi said.

This time, the rover traveled 450 million kilometers and landed within two kilometers of the projected landing site, a feat comparable to hitting a golf ball from Atlanta and landing it in a specific seat in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Curiosity was the culmination of hundreds of breakthroughs in engineering.

JPL engineers took every last detail into account, even imprinting the tire treads of the rover with “JPL” in morse code so that the name will forever be written on the surface of Mars in Curiosity’s trail.

“That’s an amazing achievement for humanity,” Elachi said for the mission. “These are your rovers, not my rovers. They are [the] rovers of everyone.”

At the end of his lecture, Elachi revealed the real reason for his visit to Tech, and what should matter most to Tech Students: to form the partnership between JPL and the institution.

Tech is already among the top three schools for JPL employees, and the new partnership will strengthen the bond between the two institutions. A prominent feature will be personnel exchanges, which will increase student opportunities to work on JPL-led research and will also apply to Tech faculty members and JPL researchers. The ultimate objective is to offer more research and educational opportunities for students interested in space systems engineering.