Contributing Editor Karen Haywood Queen catches up with NASA’s Adam Steltzner
NASA landed another rover on Mars in February, thanks in part to the work and leadership of Adam Steltzner. Smart Manufacturing interviewed him shortly thereafter—just as he got off the phone with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Adam, what were the most interesting things you learned in preparing for the Perseverance mission?
First, that you can do an awful lot from your home office. Second, that there are a lot of things wrong with your home office and what you can do. Third, that a dedicated team of individuals can really hunker down and push something over the finish line. I was worried when the pandemic hit that we wouldn’t make it to launch, and we did. Since landing, we’ve learned that our planning was right on the dot. We got a bunch of video back from the landing process. And we were able to see things that we’ve never seen before—and it looked very similar to how we imagined it would be. That also was very gratifying.
Would the mission have succeeded without smart manufacturing?
Absolutely not. There are all sorts of places where we need to bring up our manufacturing game. Most notably, places where we do additive work, some of our electronics efforts. In the Ingenuity helicopter, we’re utilizing piece parts from commercially available cellphone technology, and those are smart manufactured for efficiency and throughput. Smart manufacturing is very important. It’s part of being “smart.”
Please tell us more about the role additive manufacturing played.
We have several parts on the spacecraft that just didn’t make good sense. Their designs are driven by form, by geometry. A great example would be some of the calibration targets we’re using for our cameras. We would like to have them made out of titanium, but we don’t need it to be hallowed out of a single, monolithic forging, because we don’t need the mechanical properties. So, an additive approach is a great example.
We’re still making the switch to additive techniques. What we build tends to have a high demand on strength to weight, and a high demand on reliable, verifiable strength to weight. So, we’re looking forward to applications for additive in those domains as we learn how to be more certain of our mechanical properties of the additive elements.
Because strength to verifiable weight is one of the most important things you have to look at?
Yes. And there are times when you can’t subtractively machine a thing and get all of the material that you might out of it. And you can do an additive approach and end up with something that’s got the right amount of material in the right places. That’s a big bonus for us.
How much difference do a few extra pounds make in a mission like this?
There are different ways to think about what mass costs us. At some level, you could say this: We spent roughly $200 million on our launch vehicle. And that put a little bit over 1,000—1,025 kg of rover on the surface of Mars. That’s quite a bit of dollars per kilo. So, every kilo counts.
That doesn’t even do it justice because we’re only able to deliver a certain amount of material, a certain amount of mass, to the surface of Mars. So, if we’d been 100 kilos over, we couldn’t have gotten the job done. So, mass is paramount. The rocket equation is a harsh master. It demands that the payload—the thing on the top of the rocket, which is what we built—is the smallest, lightest possible thing it can be.
We understand that the circuit board that works with the cameras was important. And we’ve heard about Tempo Automation simulating the board before production. Why were these good ideas?
We need to understand that what we’re going to build and put together is going to get the job done. We manufacture in a range of ways, including, sadly, some very old-school soldering iron and white wire. But we have to understand that our designs are viable and will meet the requirements. Everything we do—from pen and paper to modern smart manufacturing techniques (simulation of the circuits prior to smart manufacture)—is essential to us knowing that when we put this thing together, it’s going to get the job done.
What other smart manufacturing advances have emerged from Perseverance?
We use many vendor-sourced sub-assemblies—in the Ingenuity helicopter, in the camera systems for the entries and landings, and even within some of our instruments. And all of those use a variety of smart manufacturing techniques to meet our cost and schedule.
We are also increasingly looking for opportunities to exploit terrestrial consumer electronics in novel ways. Like multi-voting, to avoid issues with radiation intolerance, temporary single-event upsets.
So, we are leaning more and more on materials manufactured for terrestrial applications—and those manufacturing streams heavily use smart manufacturing techniques because the terrestrial application is so competitive.
We love those materials because we understand the reliability very well. We are using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip from the cellphone. That’s been out in a couple of million cellphones. It’s very hard to buy that kind of testing program through time or units, when you’re building stuff custom. In the future, I think you will see that we’re reaching out into other manufacturing streams—manufacturing streams that themselves are very key users of smart manufacturing techniques.
So, the lessons will flow both ways?
I think they will. I mean, certainly in an application sense, people get to see novel ways of applying smart manufacturing in something as beautiful and magnificent as our big, fat rover.
What task is Perseverance expected to be performing in April, and where will it be on the Martian surface?
We think we will be looking to get the Ingenuity helicopter off of our vehicle and ready to start her experimental test flight program. That will be very exciting. We’re looking to demonstrate first-time-ever-atmospheric flight on another planet. This is space exploration meets the Wright brothers. It is our hope that that will be what’s happening in April.
What else about the mission would you like to add, Adam?
We are continuing to find new applications for smart manufacturing techniques in the development of our spacecraft.
I think, with each successive mission, we will see more inclusion of smart manufacturing techniques, most notably in the mechanical building and for additive manufacturing. So, we’re excited and looking forward to our future.