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Mars rover has local origins

Valencia man helped design the space craft while starting a local business

Posted: January 19, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 19, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Mark Rober, 32, holds a matchbox-sized toy Mars rover. Rober helped design Curiosity.

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Mark Rober, 32, held a white, matchbox-sized toy Mars rover in the air, remembering the anticipation that brought him to shivering on an August night last year.

“Either you make it, and you’re rolling,” Rober said, the toy suspended in the intensity of his memory, “or you’re a smoldering heap.”

Rober brought the model Mars Curiosity swooping down to his knees as the Santa Clarita Valley resident and NASA rocket scientist recalled the real Curiosity’s landing on Aug. 5, 2012.

“There really isn’t much partial success. It just has to work,” said Rober, clad in a gray T-shirt and matching cap as he lounged on the couch of his Valencia home. “You can’t send someone up to fix the rover.”

Rober, a mechanical engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spent seven years working to design Curiosity.

“It really felt like all these memories were flashing before my eyes,” Rober said of his experience watching the space robot touch ground. “It all comes together on that one night.”

Until Curiosity was finished, Rober said, he worked up to 85 hours a week to contribute to its design.

“At JPL, it is our job to design and build the thing,” Rober said.

Rober worked on design for the top deck machinery and the arm used to lift material from the surface, testing it for signs of life.

It was an exhaustive process of problem-solving and “What if?” scenarios, Rober said.

The team of engineers made decisions about things like the type of metal used, the number of wheels and design of the wheels, as well as the method of landing it on the red planet.

Because the rover traveled an estimated 13,000 mph to 20,000 mph, slowing the spacecraft to the required 2 mph for landing presented a new challenge, Rober said.

The previous model, which functioned like an air bag, wouldn’t work to slow Curiosity.

Rober and his team designed a sky crane, which separated from the larger space craft during the descent. Using three umbilical cords, the sky crane lowered the rover and its attached jet pack.

Free from the rest of the craft, the rover used the jet pack to slow its descent to the required two mph landing speed.

“It’s very specialized labor, which allows you to get expertise,” Rober said.

Demonstrating the level of detail involved, Rober said one bolt could require up to five pages of plans, information and qualifications.

The team had to anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong, Rober said. Presenting designs to the review board could be harrowing.

“We have to be so rigorous about what we do,” Rober said.

The task fit him. Even as a child, he had always been as inquisitive as the rover’s namesake about the design of daily objects.

“I really like looking at things and challenging if it has to be that way,” Rober said.

Born with a scientist’s mind for problem-solving, Rober has a propensity for engineering and a long list of projects.

In the time he spent away from the rover, Rober employed his talents to establish a money-making YouTube video channel and a side business selling digitally enhanced Halloween costumes.

Because Rober decided to monetize his YouTube channel with advertisements, YouTube pays him roughly $20,000 for each video with a high volume of hits, Rober said.

If the video is viewed 1 million times, it can make from $1,000 to $10,000, Rober said.

His original video, which reached 1.5 million hits the day after it was uploaded, featured a simple way to use a smartphone or tablet for a Halloween costume, Rober said.

Cutting a hole in the front and back of a shirt, Rober duct-taped two iPads to the inside of the holes and turned on a video chat application.

After he smeared the shirt with fake blood, the simple design made it look like Rober had blown a hole through the middle of his stomach.

“It’s so obvious but no one has thought of it. That’s the hallmark of a good design,” Rober said. “I like doing things where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Today, Rober’s YouTube channel has 13 videos, 20,000 subscribers and almost 9 million total channel views.

With instructional videos on how to make a 250-foot glowing Mario balloon, Rober’s channel presents fun, random projects approached using simple designs, he said.

Running with the success of his first video, Rober launched Digital Dudz in October 2012, a Halloween costume company that sells the T-shirts to match smartphones and tablets.

Along with the T-shirts, customers download a free app for the device. Users can then shuffle between animated images of rolling eyeballs, pumping hearts, squirming maggots and other twisted pictures.

“For me, it’s really more of a creative outlet,” he said. “It’s fun to see people appreciate it.”

Though Rober has experienced success with his recent ventures, he plans to stay at NASA. But his list of projects grows longer.

Rober began fiddling with the model rover. His body was framed by large photographs of his wife and son on the wall behind him.

Reflecting on the last seven years, Rober described the scope of what he has accomplished — from designing a spacecraft that searches for life on Mars to launching a business with a simple design plan.

“It’s just such an exciting time to be alive,” Rober said. “We couldn’t have done that even five years ago.”

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