NASA space exploration expert in Cayman to inspire students

Just days after U.S. President Barack Obama targeted a manned mission to Mars by 2030, one of the men responsible for making it happen was in the Cayman Islands to tell young students they could aspire to be part of it.

NASA robotics expert Dave Lavery talks to students at UCCI. - PHOTO: JAMES WHITTAKER
NASA robotics expert Dave Lavery talks to students at UCCI. – PHOTO: JAMES WHITTAKER

Delivering the keynote address at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) conference, Dave Lavery, NASA’s program executive for solar system exploration, discussed some of the exploratory work already under way on Mars.

Youngsters were shown photographs taken just 12 hours earlier by the rover Curiosity, an unmanned exploratory vehicle which Mr. Lavery helped build and land on the red planet in a thrilling, nail-biting descent involving the largest “supersonic parachute” ever built.

“The response from the students has been very positive,” he told the Cayman Compass after his speech at the University College of the Cayman Islands.

“I think the best question I had was from a young student yesterday who asked what he had to do to get hired by NASA and go to Mars, so somebody was definitely engaged,” he said.

Putting a man on Mars within the next 20 years is definitely possible, according to Mr. Lavery, who is responsible for the management of the design and development of the next generation of Mars exploration spacecraft. He said the barriers to meeting President Obama’s target would likely be financial rather than practical.

“At this point, we have good studies on a lot of the technology issues that need to be solved and we have a good idea on how we want to solve them. It really does come down to putting sufficient funding in place.”

He believes there will be no new space race, however.

“I firmly believe the first manned mission to Mars will be a huge international mission. There will be several countries involved. This is going to be about cooperation, not competition.”

“I firmly believe the first manned mission to Mars will be a huge international mission. There will be several countries involved. This is going to be about cooperation, not competition,” he told the Compass.

In his speech to students, Mr. Lavery described how his team helped create the Mars Exploration Rover vehicles and land them on the planet.

The Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, is currently gathering temperature, atmospheric and radiation data, as well as rock samples on the planet. Its research has already established the existence of ancient streams, suggesting the planet may have once been habitable and setting the stage for future missions to search for signs of past life on Mars.

Putting the vehicle, the size of a Mini Cooper and packing some of the most sophisticated technology ever created, on Mars was not without challenges. Among them was the job of slowing the vehicle down for a soft landing after a 1,000 mile per hour journey from the edge of Mars’s atmosphere.

Rocket thrusters, a sky crane and parachute so large it was impossible to test on Earth, were all part of the solution.

Mr. Lavery said it was a nerve-wracking few moments as the team waited for confirmation that the vehicle had landed successfully.

“We knew if we got our math right, it would work. If it didn’t, we slammed into the planet at 1,000 miles per hour and put a $2.5 billion crater on Mars.”

Since then, the vehicle has been slowly roaming the surface of Mars. Because of the enormous distance between the vehicle and its operators in the U.S., there is a 25-minute communication time lag, meaning the rover requires enough artificial intelligence to navigate and troubleshoot on its own. NASA’s experts get just two 10-minute windows each day to give instructions to the vehicle, Mr. Lavery said.

Tiyen Miller, head of STEM at Clifton Hunter High School, said it was thrilling for his students to hear about such cutting-edge use of technology from experts in the field. He said he would be bringing 100 students to the conference over the next few days.

“This is an opportunity for students to see where they can get to with science and for them to get inspired, which is not always possible on a small island,” he said.

Roy Bodden, president of UCCI, said technology and robotics would provide the careers of the future.

“The main focus of this event,” he said, “is to inspire young minds. We want to get them interested and involved in STEM, which is going to change the way we live and work in the future.”

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