From the Mission to Mars

How hair curlers, legos, and toy trains are helping take us to the red planet

Start with a question you’ve heard a million times: Why? And the stories start to spin out from there, perhaps of fitting together plastic blocks as a boy, which is part of the answer: Here’s why I became an engineer. 

“All engineers love Legos,” avers Joe Burke ’12, who studied mechanical engineering. Together with John O’Malley ’12, M.S. ’13, he designed that miniature Mission Santa Clara de Asís to the left. The occasion: the SCU School of Engineering Centennial in 2011–12. The minifig Mission was their winning entry for a competition to produce a nifty centennial tchotchke. Simple and geometric, it pieces together history and geography and identity, as well as the notion that, at this University, engineering with a mission is more than a play on words.

Burke also likes trains. The senior design project that he and classmates Charles Franz ’12 (a rail industry veteran), Keegan Wada ’12, and Greg Method ’12 tackled is a system that distributes braking pressure throughout the length of massive freight trains—think 100 cars or more. That, in turn, allows trains to stop more quickly and saves wear and tear on car couplings. The project won national recognition in a mechanical engineering competition; it is also the basis for their startup, Railwave Systems, bringing their idea from drawing board to steel wheel commerce.

Silicon Valley is where entrepreneurship and engineering intersect every day. It’s also where taking risks comes naturally, Burke points out; as an engineering student, it became clear to him that it was important to try new ideas and explore areas he’s not good at (yet), and that it was okay to fail.

Perhaps the moment that leads to why? is a tale truly epic—with tremendous risk, involving the journey of a six-wheeled robot named Curiosity to the planet Mars. A heat shield designed by a team led by Robin Beck ’77 got said rover through hot-enough-to-melt-titanium entry of the red planet’s atmosphere in August. But the material that was originally supposed to protect Curiosity during entry was discovered to have its own problems during testing; “catastrophic failure” was how Beck has described it.

But then, as is sometimes the case: The solution lies elsewhere. Beck found that out as a student in different ways, including through an amusing but telling incident. She was one of two women in her graduating class studying engineering. During her sophomore year, she was taking two classes taught by Gene Fisher ’50. When she was invited to a prom, she informed Fisher that she wouldn’t be in class that Friday. Why? She sheepishly explained that to get ready for the dance, she’d need to have her hair in curlers all day and she didn’t want to be seen on campus that way.

Fisher’s alternative solution: “You wear curlers, I’ll wear curlers.”

So Beck, the future thermal protections systems engineer, walked into Fisher’s class that Friday in curlers. “There he was,” she recalled, “with his fairly long crew cut, with two pink curlers pinned to the top. He wore them the entire class.”

And then Fisher’s student went on to design the largest single-piece heat shield ever flown in space.


Keep the faith,

Steven Boyd Saum


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