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One of the fun projects that I was involved in, and contributed to the delay of my graduation, was we build a prototype Mars rover called the Mars Ball. There was an idea that a French scientist had had about how to make a rover that had squishy wheels. Each sector of a wheel could be inflated and deflated, and if you had a flat part of the wheel on the bottom you could sort of fall forwards by deflating one sector and then raise up in back by moving the air there. It sounded like a really cool approach to roving on Mars, where something could be big and dumb; just roll over these obstacles.
We built the prototype of this. At one point we thought it was going to be 16 feet tall. That slid over sideways, so we made it six or eight feet tall. It was a very challenging project: We were there with sewing machines, sewing bags, and buying blowers. We got a NASA grant for it. In the end we were able to show that this device would work. We took it to a Mars conference in Washington D.C. where it rolled around and climbed over obstacles.
But the idea was hinged on the idea that you wanted to send something to Mars that was big and dumb. The lesson that I’ve adhered to ever since then is never bet against the computer, because small and smart has turned out, as you can tell from the current rovers, to be the way to go. But it was a fun project. Most of the students were involved and had different roles. I did the computers; other people did the blowers or the fabric of the wheels. It was fun to do something that was so different from the other work.
Other things that started in my tenure were Jay Melosh’s field geology trips. I have very good memories of the first of those, where we went up to the Flagstaff area and got to hike down into Meteor Crater. I remember seeing impact melt, real impact melt, there on the crater wall and being very excited about that. That was in the spring of ’85. I guess those have continued since then. So that was a fine tradition to get going.
We had star parties sometimes. There were a lot of people who were interested in astronomy on an amateur level as well as on a professional level, and we’d borrow the Celestron 14”s that we used for occultation work, and we’d take them up to Mt. Hopkins and camp out overnight and see the sights of the sky out there. That was another highlight.
There was the Friday evenings at the Big A. I don’t know if the Big A is still there, but that was a little bar up on Speedway and Campbell where Brad Smith and Mike Drake and whatever grad students felt like going along would spend the last couple hours of the day, every Friday evening there. That was a nice start to our Friday evening socializing.
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Department of Planetary Sciences
Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
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