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Titans Contribute to Curiosity's Exploration of Mars

Sept. 5, 2012

drawing of load cell created for the Mars Rover

John Vargas and Richard Walker were involved in the creation of a load cell shown on this drawing.

As news of the findings of the Curiosity Rover show up in newspapers and televisions across the country, three Cal State Fullerton alumni know that their efforts have helped advance exploration of outer space.

When Curiosity successfully landed on Mars Aug. 5, alumnus Scot Stride (B.S. electrical engineering ’02) of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was part of the history-making team. Other Fullerton alumni also playing significant roles in Curiosity’s mission and exploration of the Red Planet were Richard Walker (B.A. business administration-management ’07) and John Vargas at Futek Advanced Sensor Technology Inc. in Irvine, members of a team that developed the feedback control system used on the Curiosity Rover.

Walker, director of engineering at the company, oversaw the team that designed, manufactured and tested the cryogenic sensors: a multiaxial load and torsion sensor responsible for monitoring the rover’s drilling arm and its robotic maneuvers as it retrieves sediments for analysis, and a load cell that supervises the precision and force used to drill into the Martian surface.

“Facilitating and mentoring the younger team members on this program was also a large part of my tasks, along with technically making sure the product was designed and tested to survive the harsh environments from initial launch, landing and extreme temperature conditions on Mars,” said Walker, who has worked at Futek for 16 years.

As program manager, Vargas worked as the liaison between NASA and Futek. “It was my job to make sure everyone understood the full scope of the requirements, timeline and budget. If and when hurdles came up, it was also my job to bring together the right team to resolve them.

“My work is exciting in that I’m fortunate enough to get exposure to the latest in design and innovation across a number of industries,” said Vargas. “Everything from medical, to automotive, to robotics, aerospace and more. All this helps sharpen our skills as a company so are are able to deliver quality products in the demanding environments that NASA requires.”

Vargas joined Futek 11 years ago. “Aside from school internships, the bulk of my career has been here at Futek. I believe that Futek’s initial interest in me was due to my experience with load cells while I was in school. Fullerton was unique at that time in that the mechanical and civil engineering departments had very close ties. And the civil engineering school used a good number of load cells for bridge testing and composite research. I was lucky enough to be a part of that.

“It’s hard to pick a favorite teacher or class, but I think I have the fondest memories of Dr. (Fleur T.) Tehrani from electrical engineering. She made, what I would have considered a challenging subject, somehow exciting. Those classes, while traditionally not the core of mechanical engineering, ended up playing a big role in my career today.”

Walker believes that having a father and grandfather who were machinists and machine builders helped develop his mechanical aptitude. “That, and numerous years of computer-aided drafting classes gave me my initial entry into Futek.”

Additionally, Walker’s business degree, with a focus in operations management, “allowed me to look at how a company should be structured and operated, as well as the importance of working relationships with other associates. From the different classes, I have been able to build synergy among different departments to improve workflow, communication and teamwork. Teamwork was a vital part to the success of the sensors we built for the Mars program. With the constant relationship building of other team members, it allows us to continue our success in the aerospace and space missions.”

“Our success with the latest Mars Rover mission has paved the way for new and exciting space programs with NASA,” said Vargas. “I hope that we get the chance to share more of these with you in the future.”

The three Titans are among CSU alumni playing significant roles in Curiosity's mission and exploration of the Red Planet. To read more about CSU contributes to the Curiosity Rover, go to the California State University website.

Next Spring

Stride, a senior engineer, Spacecraft Transmitter Systems, at jet Propulsion Laboratory, is scheduled to be on campus early next year. As the guest speaker at the Feb. 7 College of Engineering and Computer Science Technology Breakfast, he will present “Engineering Challenges of Building the Mars Curiosity Landing Radar.”

By: Pamela McLaren, 657-278-4852

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