Mars Rover team member visits Wheaton High School

Thursday, May 9, 2013
Democrat Photo/Lindsay Reed Returning to Wheaton Erisa Hines, who was a member of NASA's Curiosity Landing team, returned to her alma mater Wheaton High School on May 3. Hines gave an inspirational and informative presentation about the Mars Rover project. Pictured above, from left, are: Donna Ford, Wheaton Elementary School secretary; and Hines.

On Friday, Erisa Hines, who graduated from Wheaton High School in 1998, returned to the R-3 District campus to share her experience working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. Hines was a member the team that landed the Mars Rover Curiosity last year.

"We are fortunate to have a very special guest speaker today," said Eric Roller, who introduced Hines during the assembly on May 3. "I have known her for a very long time, and we have been good friends since high school. She has gone very far in life, which proves it doesn't matter what small town you came from."

According to Roller, Hines attended the University of Miami in Florida and then earned a masters degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"I'm going to entertain you for about 30 minutes, and then we will have time for questions," said Hines, who began her presentation by showing the student audience a replica of the Mars Rover wheel.

"I graduated from Wheaton the year after Eric," said Hines. "I came to Wheaton my freshman year, and I had a great four years with great teachers and a great principal. I'm happy to have the opportunity to come back and see the school and hopefully inspire you guys."

In high school, Hines enjoyed science and math more than any of her classes, and her parents and educators encouraged her to choose a career path that would allow her to explore those subjects. At first, she though she would become a veterinarian, but soon her interest in space drew her to the field of engineering.

After completing her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Hines received the opportunity to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), which focuses on space craft robotics. She was then chosen to work on the Curiosity team and even had the opportunity to take part in the launch of the rover in November of 2011.

Hines' presentation included a slide show that showcased the history of the Mars rover program, which has expanded from very small robotics to the Curiosity, which was bigger than a Cooper Mini. She said that 700 scientists worked on the Curiosity project over a 10-year period before the rover was launched in 2011.

It took Curiosity eight and half months to reach Mars because rovers are launched into space and then orbit the earth until they reach and are pulled into Mars' atmosphere.

Hines shared some of her experiences while working on the engineering team for Curiosity. While working on the rover, engineers were required to wear bunny suits to ensure no human skin cells contaminate the robotic equipment. The rover is also built in a vacuum chamber.

Hines also talked about what information the rover was designed to retrieve from Mars. That information included: biological potential; geology and geochemistry information; data on the role of water on the planet; and surface radiation information.

"One of the things I want to stress to you is to find something that you are good at and enjoy and stick with it," said Hines. "Practice other things too, but know that when you are excited and passionate about something people are there to help and support your goals. Your parents, teachers and members of your community will get behind you because they want to see you succeed."

Hines recommended students visit the Mars Exploration Program website and watch the film "Seven Minutes of Terror" on YouTube. The film is about Curiosity's landing.

"Good luck in school, and good luck to those of you who are going to college," said Hines. "Let me know what you end up doing. I would love to hear about it."

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