Feature Story

Challenging the Red Planet's terrain

Will Walsten, a fabrication specialist with Boeing who works in New Orleans on the Space Launch System, spends a couple of days every year helping students compete in the Mars rover challenge.

The birth of NASA in the 1950s launched a revolution that continues to inspire generation after generation, reinforcing the United States’ national identity as a bold nation of pioneers and intrepid explorers, said the people building today’s next rocket to deep space.

“The idea of space exploration is still inspiring today’s students to study the math and science that will help us achieve NASA’s vision for deep space missions,” said David Rigby, who leads the Propulsion team for Boeing’s Space Launch System program. “It won’t be my generation on the Red Planet. These are the people who will finally make that happen,” he said, pointing to the busy crowd of high school and college students from all over the world. “Our job is to help them stay engaged in studying the hard stuff that will produce the engineers and scientists of tomorrow.”

The students gathered recently in Huntsville, Ala., for NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge, getting hands-on experience building technology for the next great frontier – human exploration in deep space. Boeing, as presenting sponsor for the event, deployed new hires and top leaders to help students at the event consider their next steps in pursuit of their dreams.

“Students come back year after year, refining designs and strengthening their rovers, because it’s an incredible simulation,” said Rick Navarro, who manages the manufacturing of the SLS core stages at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and who mentored a team from Puerto Rico in the competition this year. “They have to build to specifics requirements, using the resources available, then test and fail until they get it right.”

More than a half century after it was  launched, NASA still has the cool factor that draws young people from every walk of life to pursue studies in science, engineering, math and technology. The Rover Challenge drew students from art and design schools, mechanical engineering, information technology and more, all interested in everything from human factors design for an eventual Mars habitat, to travel on the next space ship to anywhere.