Science and Technology News

Friday, August 3, 2012

SLCC Student Looks Forward to NASA’s Seven Minutes of Terror

NASA Flight Center Scholar Ready for Curiosity’s Mars Landing
Salt Lake Community College student Christopher F. Thompson is ready for the launch of NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover onto planet Mars. Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to explore another world. As a student who has participated in NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center—a program that lets college students develop a prototype vehicle to roam Mars—Thompson said that the landing “will be a pretty intense engineering achievement. It will be pretty cool.”

And he should know. Thompson and the other students in the Marshall Space Flight Center program spent eight weeks preparing and researching for an experience that would have them working on just the sorts of scenarios demanded by the Curiosity launch. “We talked about NASA’s future plans and about Curiosity specifically,” he said. “Our assignments all revolved around a robotic mission to Mars.”

Instructors in the program stressed that the student work could help advance the program. “They let us know that even as students we have the wherewithal to design something that could become reality. They really emphasized that point,” Thompson said.

His experience in the NASA program, as impressive as it was, didn’t leave him an expert on all of the details of what will be a mind-bogglingly complicated mission.

“Honestly, I didn’t understand how it was going to land at all—how they would actually do it—until I saw a video on it,” he said.

It’s understandable even Thompson would find himself a little stumped. Dubbed ‘seven minutes of terror’ by NASA scientists, the 1-ton Curiosity rover's spacecraft descent from the top of the planet’s atmosphere to its surface will take about that long if all goes according to plan On Sunday. That night, the robotic craft will enter Mars's atmosphere going approximately 13,000 miles per hour (mph) when a gigantic parachute will deploy with the one-ton craft about 6 miles off the ground.

This will enable Curiosity to slow to about 200 mph. Rocket engines will then fire to reduce the descent speed to less than 2 mph. Then, the rover will be lowered to the surface of Mars on cables. When Curiosity's six wheels touch the planet’s surface, the rover’s ‘sky crane’ descent stage will fly off and crash-land intentionally a safe distance away.

It promises to be quite a show. A video details the stakes: as a NASA scientist says, “It looks crazy, but it’s a very natural thing,” a graphic reads: 6 vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, 500,000 lines of COD3, and Zero margin of error. And Thompson won’t miss any of it. “Oh, I can’t wait to see it. Yes, it’ll be a lot of fun to watch—especially after all of the work I’ve been able to do working on projects like this.”

While there, he worked with a student team to create a company infrastructure to design and develop a rover. The students got a tour of NASA facilities and briefings from agency scientists and engineers.

Susan White, Director of Education at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said that colleges are a tremendous source of talented problem solvers that can help feed skilled scientists and engineers into the nation’s workforce. "This program helps inspire students to pursue STEM careers in the future," she said.

And Thompson has worked to make sure that his friends at Salt Lake Community College also get the opportunity to have these kinds of inspiring experiences. Thompson was president of the College’s American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) chapter when he was selected to be one of 48 students to participate in the NASA program.

“When I got back from [being in the program] in Alabama, I did a couple of roundtable discussions—about what I did, what we accomplished, how I got into the scholarship program, that kind of thing,” Thompson said. “And then I help recruit new students to the program.”

He didn’t have to look far. He immediately thought about a couple of his close friends who were also involved in the College chapter of ASCE. He thought they’d be perfect candidates for the program and let them know how to apply. Thompson encouraged them throughout the process—showing them how to apply, who to talk to, asked and answered their questions and acted as a mentor.

Both Jeff Thomas and Nicolas Cloward were accepted to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center program. They completed the program this spring. 

Thomas and Cloward, like Thompson before them, were selected to NASA’s prestigious program based on web-based assignments they completed that centered on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) content.

Now, all three are excited about the Curiosity landing along with space enthusiasts around the world. The difference between them and most everyone else, is they understand what goes into making an event like this happen; they’re aware of just how risky the landing will be and what’s risky about it.

Curiosity is due to land on Mars’s huge Gale Crater at 11:31 p.m. PDT on Sunday, Aug. 5. Unfortunately, the three won’t be able to enjoy the spectacle together. Cloward will be attending an activity for the Utah National Guard unit to which he belongs; Jeff Thomas will be watching with his family in Colorado; and Christopher Thomas has yet to finalize his plans to watch. But he will be watching.

For more information about NASA's education programs, visit:

About the College: Salt Lake Community College is an accredited, student-focused, urban college meeting the diverse needs of the Salt Lake community. Educating and training more than 62,000 people each year, the College is the largest institution of higher education in Utah. The College has 13 sites, an eCampus, and nearly 1,000 continuing education sites located throughout the Salt Lake valley. Courses are offered during both traditional and accelerated semesters, during the daytime, evenings, and weekends. Personal attention from an excellent faculty is paramount at the College, which maintains a student-to-teacher ratio of less than 20 to 1.

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