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Science Center brings Mars rover back to earth in new exhibit

John Stegeman, 18, helped design and build a Mars rover-style robot for the Science Centerexhibit
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
John Stegeman, 18, helped design and build a Mars rover-style robot for the exhibit.

The Curiosity rover is cruising toward a specific set of sand dunes on Mars millions of miles across the universe. The St. Louis Science Center is trying to bring that science down to Earth.

A new exhibit aims to explain both the science and the thought process behind the Curiosity Mars rover, according to Paul Freiling, director of engineering and technology education at the center. For him, the scope of Curiosity’s responsibilities illustrate how problem-solving in space is the productive of cooperative minds.

“Whether you’re a writer or someone who has interest in machines and engineering, to someone who’s interested in geology, all of that can happen on Mars, which is really exciting,” he said.

The exhibit, "Mission: Mars – Control," features programmable robots and a work station separated by Interstate-64. In the Science Center’s main building, visitors program the rover to perform simple tasks using a touch screen. When the commands are complete, a robot approximately half a mile away in the Planetarium twitches and springs to life. Among the tasks visitors can program are taking soil or sand samples and performing analysis of the samples.  

The project was funded in part by a NASA-supported educational grant and produced with consultation from Professor Ray Arvidson of Washington University who served as a scientific adviser for the project.  

Andrew McGarrahan, the Science Center's senior educator of engineering and technology, said the exhibit speeds up and simplifies how NASA operates the real Curiosity.

“They plan out where they want to go, the scientists and the engineers do, they send the program to the rover and then actually about 24 hours later they finally get the information back from the rover to plan the mission for the next day.”

The rover's camera allows visitors to see what it "sees" at the Science Center
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
The rover's camera allows visitors to see what it "sees."

Although operating the exhibit is intended to familiarize visitors with the planning, strategic thinking and scientific goals of rover missions, project leads McGarrahan and Freiling want people to get inside the minds of the scientists as well. To this end Feiling visited NASA labs and spoke with scientists who contributed to the project throughout the country. He’s enthusiastic to share the knowledge that dozens of people working on various projects across the United States contribute to Curiosity’s success.

“Although NASA jet propulsion lab is the core of what is happening, it’s only a small piece of this larger puzzle that’s all this work that’s happening,” said Freiling.

They’re hoping the exhibit highlights the collaborative efforts of executing missions and gets kids and parents alike to consider what they call the “maker mentality.”

Freiling describes the mentality as fearless and driven: “If something doesn’t exist in this world that you want to exist, make it happen, make it real.”

Two rovers at teh Science Center were built for the exhibit titled Intrepid and Adventure
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Two rovers, Intrepid and Adventure, were built for the exhibit.

Freiling and McGarrahan practice what they preach. They collaborated with John Stegeman, 18, in the development of the exhibit. And Stegeman shares that “maker mentality.”

St. Louis area native Stegeman won an open competition to design the robot, beating out professional firms from New York and elsewhere.  Stegeman recently finished at John Burrough’s High School and left this fall for the Wooster Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He’s been working with robotics for nine years. His interest began with Legos and Lego Robotics kits and quickly escalated until he was competing in national robotics competitions. He’s primarily responsible for designing the robot and its programming. This means he had to figure out the software that could make the rover actually move.

“The biggest breakthrough moment was when the system worked correctly the first full time through and someone could actually write a program on a simulation station, go to another station, load the program they just created, send it across communications links for when the rover’s over a kilometer away,” he said.  Stegeman’s description is an almost perfect match to how McGarrahan describes Curiosity.

Stegeman shares the Science Center educator’s enthusiasm for collaboration. For him, the best moment of work came while letting visitors test an in-progress model of the rover.

“When they drive it and program it and everything works for them and they’re happy that it worked and that they actually programmed a rover and they learn programming isn’t impossible!” he said.

Visitors will have a chance to experience the rover throughout the holidays.

Directions executed by visitors will cause the robot to move around the space on six wheels.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Directions executed by visitors will cause the robot to move around the space on six wheels.