Creative Hero: Adam Steltnzer

Adam Seltnzer

This guy is pretty cool!
Adam Steltnzer begins his motivational speeches with, “I want to share with you how much we got wrong…”. This is not a statement one would expect from the EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) development manager of NASA’s rover, Curiosity, which successfully landed on Mars in 2012. However, Adam continues his speech by encouraging youngsters, “…never to let the fact that you might be wrong, get in the way of you trying to find out what’s right.” It takes a true Creative Hero to continue to explore and invent in the face of perceived failures until finally achieving success.  Mr. Steltnzer is no stranger to exploring various “wrong” options. He was born into a wealthy family and although was exposed to some of the finest educational institutions, showed little interest in academics and even failed high school geometry. During high school, Adam began playing in a garage band and upon graduation went to the Berklee College of Music for one year prior to dropping out. He openly admits to living life on the wild side during this period of his life saying that he was studying “sex, drugs and rock & roll”. Nevertheless, Adam became inspired by constellations of stars one evening and enrolled in a physics class as a prerequisite to an astronomy class at the College of Marin. Very humble beginnings for a later illustrious career in astrophysics. Thus began Adam’s 14-year journey through higher education, ultimately completing a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During his academic career, Adam began working for NASA in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He worked on several flight projects but is most well-known for his leadership in designing the “Sky Crane” for the Mars rover, the Curiosity 

(Photo: NPR)
NASA began exploration missions to Mars in 1997 when they landed a 25kg rover, the Pathfinder. Adam says the Pathfinder was about the size of a microwave. In 2004, Spirit and Opportunity, which were twin rovers weighing about 175kg each landed on Mars. However, these pioneering rovers were no comparison to the whopping 900kg Curiosity, which is heavier than a car, when trying to devise a way to land the craft safely on the surface of Mars. The weight of the craft was enough to cause a headache but combining the weight with the velocity the craft would be traveling upon entering the atmosphere made the mission seem impossible.  Adam frankly discusses the failures he and his team experienced as they pressed the bounds of astrophysics in trying to invent a method to land the Curiosity on the surface of Mars. These trials and errors were reminiscent of the tribulations he faced earlier in his life. It is because Adam can see many paths to a solution that he is creative and because he is brave enough to fail and try again that he a hero. Thank you, Adam, for sharing your Creative Heroism with the world!

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