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Oswego Engineer Celebrating 1st Anniversary Of Mars Rover Landing

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Neil Mottinger (center) with colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.  (Photo courtesy Neil Mottinger)

Neil Mottinger (center) with colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo courtesy Neil Mottinger)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – It was one year ago today when the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, and a NASA scientist from suburban Chicago who played a key role in the mission will be among those celebrating the milestone.

“It’s just unbelievable. They’ve had great success with tons of interesting science,” said Oswego native Neil Mottinger, a navigation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

As Curiosity entered the Mars atmosphere, the mission control team sat white-knuckled as the spacecraft barreled towards the surface. But across the hall, Mottinger monitored the landing with an air of confidence, knowing that he and his team did all they could to get car-sized rover to the Red Planet.

“The primary goal of the navigation team for this mission was to deliver as accurate as possible knowledge of where the spacecraft would be at the edge of the atmosphere,” Mottinger said. “The landing was something like approaching an airport. You know where the airport is but if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know how to get there. So navigation gives its best estimate and then it’s up to its computer to guide it through the atmosphere and approach the surface.”

Mottinger is being modest. His team guided Curiosity on a 154-million-mile, nine-month journey to Mars, and they hit the bull’s eye. Curiosity landed within 1.5 miles of the target site. Put another way, that’s like shooting an arrow from Dodger Stadium and hitting a target inside Wrigley Field.

“That site was about 12 miles by 4 miles, and we landed within 1.2 miles of the desired point, but it’s because we used techniques that were developed for the Apollo missions and also the space shuttle, to fly through an atmosphere and actually guide the spacecraft to where it wants to be. That was the significant advancement for MSL that made that very precise landing possible,” he said.

On the web: Mars Science Laboratory

The trip to Mars was no Sunday drive either. Mottinger says more than half of previous missions failed because a lot can happen on the way.

During its journey, Curiosity experienced temperatures ranging from minus-250 to nearly 300 degrees. Propellant lines could have frozen, or the spacecraft could have been damaged by solar particles.

As they monitored Curiosity’s trip, navigation team members made corrections to the spacecraft’s trajectory as needed.

“There are no givens. It’s a harsh environment out there. We’re also concerned about solar weather that could damage the electronics. This has happened with other missions in space,” Mottinger said. “I’ve worked internationally with the Japanese Space Agency that was attempting to fly to Mars several decades ago and a solar storm severely damaged their spacecraft to the point that they were unable to complete the mission.”

The Curiosity mission followed a decade of planning and testing but Mottinger says some of the prep could only be done on paper.

“I still find it hard to believe that these events which could not all be tested anywhere on Earth, we tested the individual components, for example, the radar was taken aloft over Edwards Air Force Base and the software that was to acquire the ground with that radar was tested with an airplane screaming towards the ground as fast as it could go,” he said. “It all has to be put together and that can only be done at Mars and it’s a testament to tons and tons of testing and thinking and thinking and thinking and having people that that’s their sole job to focus on that.”

Over the course of his career, Mottinger has provided navigation support for more than 100 spacecraft including the Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor missions to the Moon, the Mariner mission to Mars in 1971 (the first spacecraft to orbit another planet) and the Viking missions that landed two spacecraft on Mars. He also took part in the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions.

Not bad for a kid who grew up on an Illinois chicken farm, where his passion for science bloomed after using a neighbor’s telescope for the first time.

“My mother arranged for us to go over and looked through his homemade telescope. We look at the moon and that set the course for the future. I was fascinated by that. I ordered the parts from Edmunds Scientific to make a telescope myself,” he said.

“One of the things I remember is sleeping in the tent in the backyard. I got up at about 4-o’clock in the morning and set the telescope up and saw the moons of Jupiter for the first time and that was an incredible thrill.”

Mottinger says watching Curiosity over the past year has also been a thrill, as the Rover drills and samples Martian dirt and rocks. Among its most significant findings is evidence of a past environment that could’ve supported microbial life.

“There’s just an incredible sense of pride of thinking I’ve been here since we’ve put the first landers on Mars with Viking and now we’re not only landing but we’ve got a car up there and we can move around with a remote geologist who can make all kinds of discoveries. It’s just an incredible blessing and I’m extremely grateful to have been part of that team,” he said.

Mottinger has moved on and is working on new projects including NASA’s next mission to Mars slated for launch later this year. The MAVEN spacecraft will survey he upper atmosphere of Mars. He’s also been helping the Indian government with its planned robotic mission to Mars also scheduled for later this year.

And Mottinger says despite what you may hear, scientific research and space exploration are still happening at NASA. He hopes the human spirit never allows that to cease.

“Countries like Great Britain, Portugal, Spain and Holland had sailing ships that were out navigating the world. They were taking the risk of falling off the edge of the world because they thought it was flat. And when these countries decided they couldn’t explore anymore and couldn’t afford to spend the money to send those ships out, they withered and just became small countries all wrapped up in their own affairs,” he said. “So I am really glad that the U-S is still pursuing the dream even though how difficult they be. There’s a young generation that’s proving its capabilities beyond belief with things like this.”

Mottinger returns occasionally to Oswego and visits classrooms like he does all across the country in hopes of sparking the interest of young people. He remembers a former Oswego High School teacher – Charles Potts – who inspired him as a young man – and returned to speak with students. On one such visit, one of the students just happened to be Potts’ son Chris who became interested in aerospace engineering thanks to Mottinger. Chris Potts now works for JPL as a mission manager for Odyssey, a JPL/NASA Mars Orbiter that provides a vital relay link for Curiosity.

What’s Mottinger’s message to young people?

“Get access to a telescope. Don’t rely on looking at pictures on a computer monitor. Hubble pictures are certainly inspiring but time and time again I’ve seen that people look through a telescope with their own eyes and see the moons of Jupiter just like Galileo in 1610 or the rings of Saturn, you realize that this is very real,” he said.

During its trip to Mars, Curiosity measured radiation levels and is currently monitoring weather and other atmospheric conditions on the Martian surface. The findings will be key to planning future, possible human missions to the planet. According to NASA, Curiosity has collected more than 190 gigabits of data and has sent back 37,000 full images and just as many thumbnail images of Mars. It has fired a laser at rocks to determine their composition and has driven more than a mile from its landing site.

An estimated 5,000 team members from 37 states helped shepherd the program from the drawing board to launch pad to landing on Mars and beyond.

Mottinger and his fellow scientists and engineers will celebrate Curiosity’s anniversary with ice cream and a jazz band. A number of other official events are also planned.

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