Adam Steltzner credits his experiences at College of Marin for setting him on a trajectory to the solar system and beyond. The educational journey for the NASA engineer, who now holds advanced degrees from some of the nation's finest institutions, started at the Bay Area community college, and he looks back at that journey with fondness.
“I’m a big believer in community colleges,” he said from his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “It’s not about prestige, it’s not about your SAT scores. It’s from-the-heart education and I really resonated with that.”
Steltzner is the lead engineer of the team that landed the Curiosity rover safely on Mars in August 2012. It was his job to oversee the plans and execution of getting Curiosity through the thin Martian atmosphere, slowing it down from 13,000 mph to approximately 200 mph, then deploying a rocket powered “sky crane” to lower the rover to the surface. In October 2012, Curiosity started digging teaspoon-sized ditches into the Martian soil to obtain samples for its on-board laboratory.
Steltzner’s interest in the cosmos was piqued one starry Bay Area night in 1984 while returning from a gig as a bassist for a new wave band when he noticed that Orion had shifted in the early-morning sky. That fascinated him, he said, and he went to the College of Marin to take an astronomy class to learn more.
“This was back in the days when you walked up to a big board and saw each class listed, and if they had room you signed up,” Steltzner said. “So I tried to sign up for Astronomy 101 but learned that there was a prerequisite to get in – a non-math physics course taught by Dr. Stephen Prata. I cannot speak highly enough about Dr. Prata. He conveyed an excitement of learning. I was hooked from there.”
Three semesters later, Steltzner transferred to UC Davis and earned a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering. Then came a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in engineering physics from the University of Wisconsin.Steltzner is the chief engineer of the Mars 2020 project putting a Curiosity-class rover on Mars to collect surface samples and rock cores for possible return to Earth by a later mission.