Big Red Landing

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This Martian scene, a mosaic that includes images NASA’s Curiosity rover took in August, shows a 360-degree view of the landing site with the rover’s shadow visible in the foreground. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

For Adam Steltzner PhD’99, nearly ten years of work came down to the moment Curiosity landed safely on the surface of Mars.

He was the public face of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which used a complex system involving a one hundred-pound parachute and rockets to land the one-ton mobile laboratory at the planet’s Gale Crater. The August event was broadcast live in Times Square and had people around the country chanting, “USA! USA!” — along with the ebullient team at mission control.

Steltzner’s first reaction approached disbelief. “We had worked so hard for so many years,” he says. “I had personally worried so much [that I thought] it could not just happen with so little drama. It could not be that simple.”

The California native’s path to NASA included a stop in Madison in the 1990s, when he was a popular teaching assistant in engineering physics who also moonlighted as a drummer and percussionist for Jewbacca, an eleven-piece Afro-Cuban-Klezmer orchestra. During that time, he says, he learned many things, including “how a great PhD adviser can make your graduate years enjoyable” and “how genuinely kind and friendly Wisconsinites are.”

In the wake of the landing, Steltzner received a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama and a shoutout from Esquire magazine celebrating his hair style — an “adult, not-at-all punk, take on the pompadour” — along with his accomplishments in space exploration.

Curiosity continues to send breathtaking photos of the planet from its seventeen cameras, but Steltzner’s favorite is the first image from the Hazcam mounted on the rear of the rover. Taken the night it landed, the photo shows the descent-stage impact cloud in the distance. “Murky, dust covered, but priceless nonetheless,” he says.

Published in the Winter 2012 issue

Tags: Alumni, Engineering, Science, space, Student life

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