Mars rover specialist visits students
Specialist: ‘Find something you’re good at and stick with it’
It’s not every day that students get a visit from a Mars rover specialist, let alone one that graduated from Barry County and now works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
But on Friday, Cassville Middle School students got a special treat when Wheaton graduate and Mars Rover Specialist Erisa (Hines) Stilley shared stories and pictures about facilitating rover visits to the planet Mars at the Cassville Event Center.
Middle School Principal Jimmie Barton, who described Stilley’s visit as a “tremendous opportunity for students leading up to the [solar] eclipse,” organized the event.
Stilley was a driver for the rover Curiosity, and was on the team that helped it fly from Earth to Mars during the cruise portion of the mission as part of the Attitude Control Systems team. The rover landed on Mars in 2012 after years of research and preparation. She also helped develop new capabilities for its mobility system after landing. Prior to Curiosity, she worked on the DAWN Asteroid mission and Altair, the next generation moon lander design.
Stilley is currently working on the next Mars rover mission at JPL, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., which will take place in 2020 and collect samples to be returned to earth for a future study and mission.
Stilley shared a presentation and explained to students how the rover will help Earth’s inhabitants understand the geological layers of the Red Planet, and helped answer questions such as, “Does Mars have a water or energy source? What is its climate like? Does it have the chemistry to support life?”
Stilley also showed video footage of Curiosity landing on Mars, which settled near the foot of a mountain approximately 18,000 feet high, comparing it to Mt. Everest at 29,000 feet.
With an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than Earth’s and made up of 95 percent carbon dioxide, humans cannot breath on Mars. Due to large temperature fluctuations, its distance from the sun, and no atmosphere to absorb the sun’s heat energy, the planet stays extremely cold. On average, temperatures can reach about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or lower.
In 1997, the U.S. spacecraft Mars Pathfinder put the wheeled robotic probe Sojourner on Mars, the first to operate on its surface.
One Mars day is longer than one earth day by 37 minutes, so teams must plan their work accordingly.
Stilley graduated from Wheaton in 1998. In college, she started her career as an undergraduate in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of Miami in Florida, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. She also spent two summers working for the Defense Intelligence Agency, before attending the prestigious technology school Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), receiving a Master’s in aerospace engineering and technology policy.
She spent one summer with Engineering Ministries International in Colorado Springs, Colo., before moving to Pasadena to work at JPL full-time.
In high school, Stilley enjoyed drama club, sports, math, science and history. She shared that a monologue she created for a History Day competition about a teacher that died in the 1986 Challenger accident, and the Upward Bound Math and Science program at Crowder College were some of the catalysts that sparked her interest in aerospace. She enjoyed science and originally wanted to be a marine biologist, but chose the field of engineering because she would only need a bachelor’s degree and could live anywhere in the world. However, an advisor strongly encouraged her to apply to graduate school at MIT.
“I met people who worked at JPL and did a summer internship there,” Stilley said. “Then, I took a year off to explore applying engineering to mission work in Colorado, and returned to apply for full-time work at JPL.
Stilley concluded by sharing a few words of advice with students about their future careers and dreams during her visit.
“Find something you’re good at and stick with it,” she said. “And, enlist others to help you. If you’re excited and interested in doing something, you’re going to find individuals to help you get there.”
In recent years, Stilley has also spoken about her adventures as a Mars rover specialist at her alma mater in Wheaton.
“We’re just proud of her and knew she had the work ethic to accomplish great things and aren’t surprised that she could accomplish great feats like what she has,” said Dale Forgey, Wheaton High School administrative assistant. “We knew what kind of individual she was.”
As for CMS students, Barton plans to continue the school’s laser focus on science, and the future career opportunities it offers students.
“We plan to stay up with technology,” Barton said. “I think given the direction we’re going, we’ve got some exciting things happening here. We started to add some STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) courses last year, and more this year, and summer school definitely took a good turn with the science focus. We’re trying to get kids excited about STEM opportunities, and we have Project Lead the Way. This year, we’ve added a competitive robotics class. It has an introductory course and an advanced level course for competitions, plus medical detectives in seventh and eighth grades, which lends itself to the medical field.”