2011

William Allen, Senior Engineer, Spacecraft Mechanical Engineering Section, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA

NTB: And what kinds of tools and technologies have been the most helpful when you’re building such a complex instrument?

Allen: We certainly couldn’t do it without the progression of technology. The technology, in fact, that we had when we did the last Mars rovers wouldn’t have helped us do the current Mars rover. With something this complex, we need tools that help us do things in a concurrent fashion. We have a lot of people onboard sharing the same information at the same time. Without that, it would take us four or five times as long.

NTB: How many people are working on this?

Allen: In my area, there were 100 people at its peak on our mechanical design team, and about maybe another 200 engineers. That’s just on the mechanical systems. For the whole project team, the number will be closer to probably 1000 people.

NTB: What’s the key to maintaining order within the groups?

Allen: That’s where management comes in and earns their keep: keeping the troops focused on goals, and supplying them with the right tools and resources to do their job.

NTB: What have your specific, day-to-day work been with the Mars Science Laboratory?

Allen: I serve on a lot of tiger teams, trying to resolve solve systematic problems. Also, I’m in charge of the configuration of the spacecraft, so maintaining that for the design and engineering team is probably the main goal, along with doing the mechanical configuration.

NTB: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in making this mission a success?

Allen: There will be different levels of success, much like the previous rovers. Their design was intended to cover about 90 days, and seven years later, they’re still kicking. So that’s an extraordinary level of success. Here, the MSL is designed to go for about two years. If we’re able to function and process samples and so forth over those two years, it will be considered a success.

NTB: What is the time frame?

Allen: The launch is in November and due to land in the following August. It’ll spend the next two years navigating to places of interest, and taking and processing samples.

NTB: What is the most exciting part of going to work every day?

Allen: It’s probably getting to work on significant and unique things. It’s not every day that something goes up to Mars, and there are not many people in the world doing it. It’s fairly exciting to work on something that unique.

NTB: What would you like to be working on next?

Allen: About a year-long vacation.

NTB: How long have you been at it?

Allen: I’ve been on MSL for 7 years, and I’ve worked on the previous Mars rovers. 

NTB: How have the Mars rovers evolved to the model that we’re at today with the MSL?

Allen: They’re certainly a reflection of the growth of technology. We use technology to design and build them, and then we use what technology is available and proven and tested to bring onboard, so it’s kind of a cyclic process. You use technology to design and build these types of things, and the more the technology improves or progresses, the more complicated designs you can do. Even though we’re R&D, we still have to be competitive when we’re spending tax dollars. They don’t fund you just because you have a good idea. You have to have a fiscally sound idea. 

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