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ND alum catches glimpse of Mars

Andrew Thagard | Wednesday, January 21, 2004

When a younger Eric Baumgartner learned of an indication of high blood pressure during a physical, he figured his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut was over.

Years later, this double Domer (he graduated in 1988 with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, earned a Master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati then returned to Notre Dame for a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering) hasn’t set foot in space. His job, however, as the lead test and operations engineer for the robotic arm component of NASA’s Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity, has given him a close-up look at Earth’s neighbor that even a few astronauts might envy.

“It’s been tremendous for me,” Baumgartner said of the experience. “When you look at those vistas from the panoramic camera, it’s like you’re standing there.”

Baumgartner’s team is part of a larger NASA mission to explore the surface of Mars and search for past signs of water and, possibly, life. The two rovers were deployed last summer at a combined cost of $800 million.

The first of the two rovers, Spirit, has landed successfully within Mars’ Gusev Crater, a geographic landmark that scientists believe may be a former lake basin, and its sister rover Opportunity is scheduled to touch down on the red planet Saturday night.

For Baumgartner, who has been working on this project for the past three and a half years, the excitement – and apprehension – begins when the rovers reach Mars’ surface and the engineers must coordinate the unfolding of their arms.

“The first time we deployed the arm there was a great deal of tension,” Baumgartner said.

The first ten minutes that Spirit spent on the planet were also particularly suspenseful, he admits, especially because during that time frame no communication existed between Earth and the rover as it bounced along Mars’ rocky terrain.

After communication was reestablished and the rover settled, Baumgartner and his team began the task of unfolding the vehicle’s robotic arm. The rover contains six instruments, including a panoramic camera, rock abrasion tool and spectrometers for analyzing minerals. The equipment allows the rovers to function as “robotic field geologists,” according to Baumgartner.

“It’s like a geologist out in the field,” he said. “It takes to the field with it the same tools that a geologist would.”

The rovers and the instruments they contain allow scientists to enjoy never before seen views of Mars’ surface and even minute details of its rocks while also analyzing their chemical content.

And what’s it like driving a $400 million piece of equipment millions of miles away via remote control with a ten minute lag time?

Stressful but pretty cool, according to Baumgartner.

“There’s a little bit of fear there. If you break it, you’re pretty much stuck,” he said. “You feel a sense of being there. It’s almost like the robot is an extension of yourself.”

NASA initially estimated that the rovers would have a lifetime of approximately 90 days, though scientists now say they may be operational for longer.

For Baumgartner, that means he’ll be kept busy for the next few months.

“I’m gonna try to stick with [the mission] as long as the vehicles are alive,” he said. “You work so hard on these projects. To see that come to fruition is just tremendous.”