By Roger McKinney
NEOSHO, Mo. —
Erisa Hines on Thursday told around 500 schoolchildren at Benton Elementary School that when she was young, she wanted to be a veterinarian.
She also had an interest in space, and her dad planted a thought in her head.
“My dad said, ‘Hey, did you ever think about being an engineer?’” she said.
Now she is a systems engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a member of the team that launched, flew and landed the Curiosity rover on Mars last August.
She was valedictorian of her senior class at Wheaton High School in 1998. In high school, she went to the National History Day competition with a performance as teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe.
She was invited to the Neosho school by teacher Chett Daniel, who was in high school with Hines.
She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami in Florida and her master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hines told the children that about 700 scientists developed the science plan for the Curiosity mission. It includes studying the biological potential, geology, water and radiation on the planet.
“There are two big groups of people who worked on the rover,” she said. “There are the scientists, and there are the engineers.”
Curiosity launched on Nov. 26, 2011, just after Thanksgiving.
“I have no idea where I had Thanksgiving dinner, because we were trying to launch a spacecraft,” Hines said.
She showed the students a video — “Where were you when Curiosity landed on Mars?” — in which Hines is shown at JPL mission control. She also recommended that the students watch the online video “7 Minutes of Terror,” which explains the complicated procedure of landing Curiosity.
“You can’t really know if it’s going to work or not,” she told the students. Responding to a child’s question, she said that if the rover had crashed, nothing could have been done to recover it.
“If we crash it, we’ve broken it, and we can’t get it back,” she said.
Hines said the first thing the team members asked Curiosity to do was to take a picture and send it back. That way they knew it was working.
She said Curiosity is the size of small sport utility vehicle.
She said her current job is testing software on a duplicate rover at JPL, before it is uploaded for future Curiosity procedures.
“I help them get commands ready,” she said. “We basically send it an email every day saying, ‘Here’s what we want you to do today.’” Curiosity emails back several hours later what it accomplished and what it didn’t accomplish.
Hines told the students that they should study everything. She said her job uses a lot of math and science, and she also uses the English she learned in school in communicating with others on her team and writing reports.
She told them that if they find something they’re excited about, they should pursue it. She said if they’re excited about doing their best, people will help them.
“Keep learning everything you can get your hands on,” she said.
Isabella Saclolo, 9, a fourth-grader, said Hines’ talk inspired her.
“I think it was really interesting that we’re going that far into space, and we’re trying to find life on Mars,” she said. “It does inspire me a lot.
“I thought it was really cool,” said Drayke Perry, 10, also in fourth grade. “It’s cool to hear about all the technology and how far they think ahead.”
He said he was uncertain about the idea of traveling to Mars.
“It seems dangerous,” he said.
Curiosity is now in a freshwater lake bed at a location called Yellowknife Bay inside Gale Crater. Hines told reporters after the presentation that the area is so promising in terms of potential biology that the rover is spending more time there than initially was planned. After finishing its work there, Curiosity will travel five miles to Mount Sharp to examine its geology. The trip will take several months.
Hines said being involved in the landing operation on Aug. 6, 2012, was tense.
“It’s nerve-racking at best,” she said. “I personally was preparing for the worst.”
She said she allowed herself more hope with every milestone reached during the descent.
“You’re living moment to moment,” she said.
When the landing was confirmed, it was very emotional at mission control.
“You saw grown men in tears,” she said. Some people had worked on the project for 10 or 20 years.
Hines now is spending part of her time planning for a 2020 mission to Mars. She said it will be much like Curiosity, but with different science instruments.
THERE IS ANOTHER AREA CONNECTION to Mars Curiosity: EaglePicher Technologies, of Joplin, made some of the batteries used in the descent and landing.