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Photo courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Adam Steltzner - NASA Jet Propulsion Labs lead engineer - College of Marin

Adam Steltzner credits his experiences at College of Marin for setting him on a trajectory to the solar system and beyond. The educational journey for the engineer who holds advanced degrees from some of the nation's finest institutions started at the Bay Area community college and he looks back at that journey with fondness.

“I’m a big believer in community colleges,” he said from his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories. “It’s not about prestige, it’s not about your SAT scores. It’s from-the-heart education and I really resonated with that."

Before enrolling at College of Marin, Steltzner’s father told him that he wouldn’t amount to anything but a ditch digger.

Perhaps Steltzner’s dad was right all along – the College of Marin alum has had a hand on some ditch digging. But that digging is taking place on Mars. Steltzner is the lead engineer of the team that landed the Curiosity rover safely on Mars in August 2012. It was his job to oversee the plans and execution of getting Curiosity through the thin Martian atmosphere, slowing it down from 13,000 mph to approximately 200 mph, then deploying a rocket powered “sky crane” to lower the rover to the surface.

In October 2012, Curiosity started digging teaspoon-sized ditches into the Martian soil to obtain samples for its on-board laboratory.

Nine years of Steltzner’s career as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, Calif. were spent designing and testing the Entry, Descent and Landing team’s methods of getting the sub-compact car-sized rover on the red soil. With the successful landing on Aug. 5, 2012, Steltzner is now off to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa. It is believed that the moon has a watery ocean under the miles-thick ice and Steltzner already is thinking of way to get a rover onto that ice.

While Steltzner’s dad may have thought his son had his head in clouds, he was off by a factor of a billion. Steltzner’s head was in the stars. He said he learned just enough in high school to know what the Orion constellation looked like. On one starry Bay Area night in 1984, Steltzner was returning from a gig as a bassist for a New Wave band when he noticed that Orion had shifted in the early morning sky. That fascinated him, he said, and he went to the College of Marin to take an astronomy class to learn more. He had already taken, but dropped, a couple of music courses at his local community college but had never taken and completed a college course before.

“This was back in the days when you walked up to a big board and saw each class listed and if they had room you signed up,” Steltzner said. “So I tried to sign up for Astronomy 101 but learned that there was a prerequisite to get in – a non-math physics course taught by Dr. Stephen Prata. I cannot speak highly enough about Dr. Prata. He conveyed an excitement of learning. I was hooked from there."

It wasn’t that Steltzner wasn’t bright – far from it. He admits that in high school he was unmotivated and a far better student of, as he said,  “sex, drugs and rock and roll” than geometry, which he flunked twice. It was that physics class and then the astronomy class at the College of Marin where Steltzner finally found his calling.

He hit the books and after three semesters he transferred to the University of California, Davis and earned a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1990. He had scholarship offers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology - the home of JPL - where he later earned a master’s degree in applied mechanics.

He was hired by JPL in 1991 and worked on a variety of teams. He was allowed to take frequent sabbaticals to pursue a Ph.D in engineering physics from the University of Wisconsin, where he also became an award-winning teaching fellow. He returned to JPL and assumed the lead engineer role of the Entry, Descent and Landing team that designed the airbag system that safely landed both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers to Mars in 2004. Opportunity is still sending back data from the Martian surface, more than eight years past its estimated lifespan.

“We came off with a lot of confidence after Spirit and Opportunity and that carried over to Curiosity,” Steltzner said. “Curiosity was too big for the airbag system so we had to come up with something else. Over a brainstorming session that lasted for three days we came up with the sky crane, or as we like to call it ‘rover on a rope.'"

Through all his success on Earth and on Mars, Steltzner still credits Dr. Prata and his classwork at College of Marin for setting him on a course to the solar system and beyond.

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Watch Adam Steltzner's "7 Minutes of Terror" video... 

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