New York Ideas 2014

Five Minutes with a Rocket Scientist

Will the US be heading back to Mars?

In case you missed it, Adam Steltzner, the Chief Mechanical Engineer for the Mars Curiosity rover, recently spoke at The Atlantic’s New York Ideas festival. Steltzner spoke about the importance of teamwork, the challenge of putting a 2,000 pound rover on Mars, the future of space exploration, and how we can inspire the young minds of today to reach for the stars. In a short interview with The Atlantic, Steltzner went into greater detail about how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory fosters a spirit of innovation and creativity, and what we can expect from the U.S. space program in the near future.

How does the JPL environment foster creativity, and how does that environment differ from similar organizations?

JPL was founded in an era when no one really knew how to do what we were trying to do (get the U.S. in space). That start formed a culture of innovation, openness to disruptive voices, and a fairly flat corporate structure. All those things survive today and make JPL and awesome place to work, and a source of innovation.

Working on project for almost a decade seem like it would become a bit exhausting for yourself and the rest of the team. How did you manage to maintain the drive for innovation within your team over the entirety of the 9-year period working on Curiosity?

This is a fairly common question that I get asked. The answer is – easy! We are aerospace engineers, designing and building a spacecraft to go to Mars! Motivation is not very difficult. Additionally – mostly for selfish reasons – I try to make work very fun. I try to have fun and play at work, and I encourage my teammates to do so too. In the end, it becomes a bit of a blast for all.

Do you think the Curiosity mission has reinvigorated the public’s interest in space exploration?

Yes, I think Curiosity has captured the public’s interest. I think that is important for space exploration and for the nation. Burt Rutan gives a great TED talk in which he explores the importance of creating “awe” in our children. He argues that kids exposed to great sources of awe – the jet age, the space age, Apollo, Curiosity perhaps – go on to create awe, innovate, and contribute to our world in a greater way that those who don’t get exposure to awesome. I think human curiosity and the act of exploration that follows from it are some of our most human attributes, and make us the great, crazy species that we are. Exploring is in our genes, driven by our most primitive, curious urges. Exposing youth to the truth of our curious nature and the awe that comes from exploring does great things for them. It motivates them to follow their own curiosity and explore their world, be it through actual physical exploration, the act of learning, or the act of creating through art or music. Turning on the next generation to follow their curiosity by showing them our Curiosity exploring Mars is a great honor.

What major initiatives, both manned and unmanned, can we look forward to seeing in the U.S. space program?

I think we can see a return to Mars, demonstrating some of the technologies necessary to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. This expedition is planned for the year 2020. In the outer solar system, I hope we will see renewed interest in exploring some of the fascinating “icy moons” – worlds with names like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. These are some of the sites in the solar system that may have the right conditions to allow organic life to be present today. Finally, I hope NASA will start working on a mission to demonstrate the technologies necessary to capture and retrieve asteroid-like Near Earth Bodies. These bodies, along with offering potential for mining and resource acquisition, pose a greater threat to Earth than any other outside influence.