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ADA — As the world watched a mobile laboratory land on the surface of Mars this week, few better appreciated the engineering feat the Curiosity mission accomplished more than Dr. Eric Baumgartner.
The dean of the College of Engineering at Ohio Northern University spent ten years working on NASA projects which included the plans for the recent landing of the rover.
As a NASA engineer, Baumgartner controlled the earlier robotic units which made their way across the planet’s surface, scooping up samples of rock for closer examination by scientists on Earth. The rovers Opportunity and Spirit followed a smaller rover named Sojourner, explained Baumgartner.
Sojourner was about the size of a microwave oven, said the professor. Spirit and Opportunity were nearly the size of a golf cart and Curiosity is the size of a small car.
“Each time the science has grown significantly,” said Baumgartner.
The rovers have performed beyond what the engineers anticipated when they were launched, he said.
“Originally they were scheduled to perform about three months,” he said. “They are still operating after nearly nine years. This has been an incredible exploratory mission.”
As Baumgartner guided the rover Opportunity along the Mars landscape, he had four tools attached to an arm. Spectrometers would bombard the rock samples with radiation and images were sent back to NASA scientists. Such studies resulted in water being found on the northern portion of Mars, said Baumgartner.
Water was also detected at the site where Curiosity landed, he continued.
Part of Baumgartner’s responsibilities at NASA included studying the engineering portion of the plans for the Mars Science Lab Project. In 2006, he was part of a presentation to NASA officials which included scheduling and budget for the lab.
As the decisions were being made on the program’s future, Baumgartner left NASA and accepted a position with ONU.
“My team carried on,” he said.
He kept in contact with the NASA engineers and marveled when they set the rover Curiosity on Mars without a hitch.
“It’s very complicated,” he said. “Things went better than anyone could have expected. This is a tremendous engineering feat.”
NASA sent a lab from Earth to Mars and set it down in a very precise spot, said Baumgartner.
“It landed inside a crater next to a mountain,” he said. “You’ve got to be nuts to try to do that, but they did it beautifully.”
Curiosity will began taking photos and collecting data which scientists hope will give an insight into the history of Mars. Curiosity has much more scientific capability than earlier rovers, said Baumgartner.
“At this point, it is all about the science,” said Baumgartner. “Did life spring up on Mars? Did it ever exist there? It has water, an energy source and carbon. That’s a good start.”
The ONU professor followed this week’s landing and recognized some of the faces he saw working on the NASA project.
“When I was there, it was a tremendous place to work,” he recalled. “There was tremendous energy and I worked with scientists and engineers from all around the world.”
But as rewarding as that career was, said Baumgartner, working with and training future engineers can be just as professionally fulfilling.
“I had a hankering to get back into an academic setting,” he said. “I saw amazing engineers at work but the work was very indirect. I feel the direct influences I have as an educator. It’s a blast, but it’s a different kind of blast.”
By DAN ROBINSON
Times staff writer