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Year in review: Landing on Mars was a big deal

Local residents worked on making Curiosity’s landing successful

Posted: December 26, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 26, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Employees pose for a photo at Flextronics in Valencia. Employees waited a week for Curiosity to begin moving and doing its work on Mars to make sure everything was working after the landing.

Editors Note: This series highlights and updates noteworthy business events from 2012.

When NASA’s Rover, Curiosity, landed flawlessly on Mars in early August, engineers from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab cheered. So too, did the employees from the Valencia-based Tri Tek and Flextronics companies.

“It was really exciting,” said Mark Rober, mechanical engineer for JPL. “We gave it a perfect 10.”

Saying he was in the right place at the right time, Rober landed a job with JPL right out of college and had spent the last seven years working on Curiosity, he said.

The landing was surreal, Rober said. Just knowing that something he had worked on for so long and so hard was then resting safely on another planet was exciting.

“You can’t script a drama like that,” he said. “It either works or it doesn’t. There are very few scenarios where it kind of works.”

Employees from local companies cheered as well.

Tri Tek

Building the electronic harnesses for the Mars Rover mockup unit, Tri Tek also constructed a couple of the electronic cables that were installed on the real deal — Curiosity — to serve as backup in the event anything failed.

Curiosity is the size of a small car and the work is like building electronics for that car, Anthony Lopez, operations manager for Tri Tek. Everything has to work.

“We were all watching it land; making sure everything was copacetic and went as it was supposed to,” Lopez said. “It was exciting to see that everything worked out.”

One doesn’t think about the end result on a day-to-day-basis when Tri Tek employees are building the products throughout the shop, Lopez said. But it is thrilling to see the byproduct of some of their work — products they touched with their own hands — land on Mars.


Employees at Flextronics also let out a sigh of relief, said Annie Eitman, business development coordinator with Flextronics at its Valencia location.

Before making public the news that the company had worked on the Rover, employees waited a week for Curiosity to begin moving and doing its work on Mars to make sure everything was working after the landing, she said.

Flextronics built electronic sensors for 47 actuators — motorized mechanisms that help control and move Curiosity — so the rover can perform tasks using movable joints.

And operating on Mars was no easy task.

The sensors had to perform in the extreme temperature changes on Mars which range from -128 to 85 degrees Celsius, a company spokesperson said.

What’s next

Curiosity was so complex, Rober said. So many things could have gone wrong. The fact that it performed nearly perfectly is a testament to the people at JPL, he said.

And it was quite a demanding challenge, he said.

“We’d look at a requirement or problem and think ‘no way.’ There is no feasible solution in this design space,” Rober said. “But then we would always find a way.”

And Rober says he is a different person now than he was when he first started working on Curiosity.

While he spent years working on Curiosity, Rober said he had a son and he lost his mom to ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. But then finally, the whole JPL experience came down to the big landing.

Joining 3,000 other JPL creators, Rober brought his wife and dad down to CalTech to watch the descent of the Mars Rover on a big screen. When the Rover landed, it was a big sigh of relief.

“It makes it hard now,” he said. “After landing something on Mars, where do you go from here (career wise)?”

Rober can be viewed witnessing the moment of the big landing with his wife, father and JPL teammates on



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