From COM to Mars: How an 80s Rocker’s Curiosity Landed Safely on the Red Planet

SteltznerphotoCollege of Marin

Kentfield, CA—April 30, 2013—Adam Steltzner, who headed the mind-blowing engineering feat of landing a one-ton exploratory Rover mission on Mars last year, says it was his own innate curiosity about the shifting constellations that first led him to study astronomy at College of Marin.

Steltzner returns to College of Marin next week to be the keynote speaker for the Grand Opening of the new Science, Math, Nursing Building, on Friday, May 10, 2013, from 1:30 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., in the James Dunn Theatre, 835 College Drive, Kentfield, CA. His lecture, titled “The Right Kind of Crazy—An Improbable Journey to Mars,” will be followed by a ribbon cutting and interactive tours through 5 p.m. The lecture, ribbon cutting and tours are open to the public free of charge.

Steltzner was in his early 20s, playing bass and drums in local bands when he looked up at the winter night sky and noticed that while he was inside jamming on stage, the Orion constellation had traveled across the sky. He was curious.

The next semester, Steltzner was at College of Marin enrolled in the prerequisites to understand the stars. He started in 1985 with basic math review courses, making up for what he describes as “a lack of focus in high school,” and winded his way into a full-blown passion for physics and math. It was that simple curiosity, he says, that propelled him to face down his personal demons and pursue what became a driving ambition to learn.

“I didn’t know it then, but I was afraid,” Steltzner says. He hadn’t been inspired or confident enough initially to follow his curiosity.

“My father was a super, hypercritical perfectionist who was immobilized by his self-criticism so he didn’t do anything for a living,” Steltzner says. His father’s various endeavors included making jewelry, designing vineyard carts for industrial farming and facilitating the artificial insemination of sheep. “Actually applying yourself to something seemed like a terrible thing. At the moment of doing something he would drop it and do something else.” His father told him he wouldn’t amount to anything.

But, Steltzner was drawn by the stellar mysteries and started college part-time. He found joy in mountain bike riding over Mt. Tamalpais, working as a cashier at a local health food store and playing music at night.

“I remember it being quite awesome,” he says of his days as a COM student. “I was 21 when I surrendered to my curiosity and started to follow it,” he tweeted last year.

“This was a time when I chose how or where I moved depending on the coffee. It was all sort of slow.” He celebrated summer and winter solstice outside – from sunrise to sunset. Then, he landed in a physics course with College of Marin Professor Stephen Prata.

“That class changed my life,” Steltzner says. “He was able to communicate and to demonstrate his glee at the understanding, or the potential of understanding, of the universe and that was infectious. I was able to connect with that within me. I just loved it. I just wanted more.”

Steltzner faced his fear of failure, and pushed on. A camaraderie among the science and math students buoyed his academic life.

“There was no judgment,” Steltzner says. “There was a celebration of what you did, what you committed to, and what you could do, but not a lot of comparison to what you should do. I learned how to apply myself emotionally so by the time I got to the physics courses I was a monster. I was a zealot. I was completely alive. I was intellectually fearless which made me effective as a student and eventually as an engineer.”

After three years, he transferred to University of California at Davis to earn a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Applied Mechanics from California Institute of Technology in 1991 and a doctoral degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Madison in 1999.

“Really early on there I decided I wanted to become a professor at a community college. It was all sort of inspired at the College of Marin by the professors I met.”

Steltzner, who has been with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since 2001, has worked on several NASA missions over the years, including Galileo,CassiniChampollion, Comet Nucleus Sample ReturnMars Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers. He was the Mechanical Systems Lead Engineer for Entry Descent and Landing for the Curiosity last year.

Known as “the Elvis guy” because of his pompadour and sideburns, Steltzner has earned numerous accolades for his work, including honors as a Top 10 Scientist for 2012 by Nature magazine and Space Technologist of the Year by the World Technology Network, which honors “the innovative work of the greatest likely long-term significance.” He was the CalTech Hellwig Fellow in structural engineering. An award-winning teaching fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he is also the author of a chapter in Going to Mars: The Stories of the People Behind NASA’s Mars Missions Past, Present, and Future and has been interviewed numerous times and lectures throughout the world about technology, creativity, leadership, and the drama and meaning of space exploration. He also serves on the Academic Studio Advisory Council for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

Over the years, Steltzner has written his former physics professor to thank him for inspiring him to learn more and Prata remembers his former pupil’s enthusiasm in the class.
“He was a student who sought to understand nature,” Prata says. “I appreciated those communications, for it’s nice to know that one’s work has contributed to such interesting consequences.”
Is life on Mars a possibility?

“I think so,” Steltzner says without hesitation. “We’ve had a couple of moments on this [Curiosity] mission where we’ve wondered if we are looking at signatures that could’ve been generated by life.”

It is one of the questions Steltzner hopes to help answer during the Mars Surface Mission scheduled for 2020. On the upcoming endeavor, he hopes to focus on the science of collecting contaminate-free samples from the planet. It is work that could illuminate that age-old mystery.

“There are signs that encourage us to think life might have been there in the past,” he says. “I think we’re seeing that every day. They don’t stand up to proof yet, but they are certainly encouraging to us.”

In designing plans for extra terrestrial sample collection, the collective imagination of engineers will be unleashed again. Steltzner describes one idea that a “lunchbox-like orb” would protect samples during the capture of samples and long journey to earth.

“It’s never been done before,” he says. “It’s a physics-driven problem. I’m always turned on by things in which the fundamental physics are driving the equation. For me, it’s a new field. The scales are smaller and the questions are different and there is a lot of learning.”

It is that exploration with colleagues, pushing the imagination beyond what has been seen as possible that is one of the ultimate experiences, he says.

“The greatest gift in life is that great works require many people working together to be accomplished so it forces us into a community and the quality of the product of that community is in no small measure the quality of the community. So it’s given me a great opportunity to make and foster a community. It’s a great honor to be part of such a thing.”

On his way to give a speech about exploration and its meaning for humankind, Steltzner says we become better through wondering about our universe.

“When we are exploring at the edge of what we can do as were on the Curiosity landing, we were aspiring to do more as an individual nation and as a people. When we speak that aspiration out loud, we are better for it.”

Steltzner is married and has two daughters. In recent years, he has returned to the community college venue to study welding at Pasadena City College, a skill that has helped him build hot rod vehicles to tour California deserts
Read this press release on College of Marin alumnus Adam Steltzner here.


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