August 14, 2012

WNC Grad Contributes to Mars Rover Project

Curiosity landing benefits from Matt Spaulding's talents

WNC Alum Matt Spaulding at Mars Rover Landing Event
WNC Alum Matt Spaulding at Mars Rover Landing Event

When the Curiosity space rover touched down on Mars’ surface in August 2012, the human presence responsible for the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s successful landing on the Red Planet was millions of miles away.

Many of the scientists and engineers accountable for the tricky and time-consuming space mission were watching the proceedings in Southern California. They shared the drama and excitement over the unmanned rover named Curiosity as it completed an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey to Mars.

One engineer working behind the scenes was Matt Spaulding, a 1999 Western Nevada College Pre-Engineering graduate. Spaulding was able to watch Curiosity’s much-anticipated landing at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“We were sitting on the edge of our seats until it was safe on the surface. It was pretty amazing,” Spaulding said.

For three years, Spaulding worked on the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory program, focusing on Curiosity’s mobility restraint system. He was responsible for hardware and mechanisms that lowered Curiosity’s wheels.

Spaulding and his colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory prepared the car-sized Curiosity to spend an undetermined length of time exploring Mars’ past and present geology. The collaborative effort between engineers and scientists enable Curiosity to utilize a variety of instruments to peel back some of the planet’s layers of history. Ultimately, the plutonium-powered rover may be able to determine whether life once existed there.

“We’ll have to drive a little while to get to the rocks that we want to drill,” Spaulding said, “then we’ll figure out what science is available and figure out what to do when we actually get to the location.”

Spaulding has also been working with a team of engineers responsible for testing Curiosity’s drill bits.

“We’re working on the lifetime of various drill components ��" what actually results in decreased lifetime … if drilling one type of rock causes wear throughout the bit,” he said, noting that adjustments will be made in the drill bit software as needed.

Once it landed, Curiosity had to load software to allow the surface mission to get rolling. “We had to make sure everything was functioning before we went anywhere,” Spaulding said.

The one-ton probe executed a series of mission-threatening steps to land on the planet, allowing Curiosity’s operators to begin preparations for use of its arsenal of exploration instruments.

”We’ve done a fair amount of entries through previous missions, but not all in one operation before. That’s where the questions were,” Spaulding said.

Having a former student associated with a space project of global significance brings pride to the college where Spaulding launched his interest in higher education.

“We work to give our students the tools and courage ��" and curiosity ��" to reach for the stars, and Matt actually did!” said Marilee Swirczek, WNC emeritus professor of English. “Everyone who encouraged, nurtured, taught, and supported Matt "from family to teachers to community" can take pride in his success and in the historic space mission of which he is a part.”

Spaulding became interested in pursuing a career with NASA after watching the 1997 Cassini-Huygens launch from Cape Canaveral" a mission to study Saturn and Jupiter.

“Taking things apart and seeing how they work has always been the spark,” Spaulding said.

After graduating from Douglas High School and studying pre-engineering at WNC, Spaulding earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington.

“I remember my math and physics professors at WNC,” he said. “I was commuting and working most of the time,” while attending classes.

Curiosity was built to withstand Mars’ dust storms and changing seasons, but its longevity will be determined by its moving parts, Spaulding said. “The lifetime of the mechanisms will determine the length of the mission.”

The world’s fascination and curiosity with this Mars mission has impressed Spaulding.

“So many people are following what’s going on,” he said. “It’s amazing how this mission has touched and is so special to so many.”

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