It's impossible, even two months after the landing, to avoid writing about
the Mars Pathfinder and the pint-size†rover, Sojourner. Talk about projects
that have put engineering on the front page! With the massive media coverage, is
there anyone in your neighborhood who didn't know about the mission? Anyone who
wasn't agog, even if only for a few minutes, at the brilliance behind a project
that lands a spacecraft with nearly pinpoint accuracy on a planet about 120
million miles away?
The mission's success brings at least three things to mind:
NASA Administrator Dan Goldin keeps his word. Four years ago, he told
Design News that the space agency would follow prudent business procatices
while continuing to take risks. "You can't go to the cutting edge without
taking risks," he said. The "faster, cheaper, better" mode NAS has embraced
under his leadership is both risky and prudent. And it can work. At about $170
million for design and construction, Pathfinder and Sojourner certainly prove
NASA's seriousness, and is ability to achieve its economizing goals while
scoring technical triumphs.
While some consumers might have misgivings about the design of automotive
airbags, the aerospace industry in general and NASA in particular, have no
such qualms. One of the triumphs of Pathfinder was the successful activation
and retraction of the airbag system that cushioned the spacecraft's landing.
The four bags, made from hoechst Celanese's Vectra(R) liquid crystal polymer,
enveloped Pathfinder in a protective cocoon that enabled it to survive the
three-bounce landing. In 1996, this magazine named Jet Propulsion Lab engineer
Tom Rivellini winner of an Excellence in Design Award for leading the air-bag
system design effort. The award was a Computervision grant of $5,000.
H.G. Wells and orson Welles had it wrong. The former, in 1898, wrote
The War of the Worlds, about an invasion of†Earth by malicious
Martians. in 1939, Orson Welles produced a radio version of the novel that
caused panic among listeners. The Pathfinder mission has turned up no monsters
on the red planet. And the† interplanetary travelers, far from war-like
invaders, turn out to be gentle machines from Earth that only want to take
pictures and gather data.
One way to keep a Formula One racing team moving at breakneck speed in the pit and at the test facility is to bring CAD drawings of the racing vehicleís parts down to the test facility and even out to the track.
Most of us would just as soon step on a cockroach rather than study it, but thatís just what researchers at UC Berkeley did in the pursuit of building small, nimble robots suitable for disaster-recovery and search-and-rescue missions.
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