In the early hours of August 6, 2012, a car-sized rover called Curiosity landed on Mars in the culmination of a 254-day, 350-million mile journey. The much-celebrated and nerve wracking landing captured the nation's fascination before Curiosity began its scheduled two year mission of studying the climate and geology of Mars. One former Northwestern student-athlete stayed up late to watch the landing live for a very good reason: he played a role in designing part of the Curiosity Rover.
"I was very excited and anxious for the landing of the Rover," said Andrew Long, a 2009 Northwestern graduate who earned Capital One Academic All-America honors as a member of the men's swimming and diving team. "I could have gone to sleep and woke up the next day to see if the Rover survived the landing, but I decided to stay up. So many different elements had to go correctly for the Rover to successfully land, so it was quite exciting after each part was announced on NASA TV."
Following his sophomore year at NU, Long did an internship with NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, where he learned that the best way to get a job with NASA is to work with the organization as part of a cooperative education program between a University and a specific employer. Because of his interest in robotics, Long went to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab for a total of nine months over his final year at Northwestern. There he joined the Planetary Sample and Handling Acquisition group, which was responsible for designing the drill and other sample handling devices on the end of a robotic arm attached to Curiosity.
Before joining the program, Long was a distance freestyle specialist for the Wildcats from 2005-08, competing in the 500 and 1,650 freestyle events at three different Big Ten Championships. After earning an Academic All-America honor for his work in the pool and the classroom following his junior season, Long decided to focus solely on his future career path.
"The co-op program is not very compatible with being on a varsity swim team, so I decided to retire from swimming after my third season to get more in-depth engineering training," Long said.
In-depth it certainly was. Long's role on the team consisted of independently designing and overseeing fabrication of mass models for vibration tests of the drill, conducting those tests to ensure the parts could withstand the forces and vibrations of launch and landing. He also worked with rapid prototyping, a useful tool for engineers to develop models to visualize concepts and components of a design.
"I became the key individual for my group for rapid prototype development of components on the end of the robotic arm," Long said.
Since its successful landing two weeks ago, Curiosity already has been back in the news for blasting a Mars rock with its pulsing laser to analyze its makeup. Similarly, the drill Long's team worked on will bore into Martian rocks and prepare the samples to be processed and analyzed by other scientific instruments on the rover.
Following his graduation in 2009, Long stayed at NU in the mechanical engineering PhD program, working in the Laboratory for Intelligent Mechanical Systems under Dr. Kevin Lynch, conducting research on a climbing robot. Long and his wife, fellow Northwestern alum Adrienne Smith, have since moved to Maryland where he is enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering PhD program and she is doing pediatric oncology research at the National Institutes of Health.
"The focus of my current PhD program is figuring out how the brain controls the body during walking," Long said. "We have a special treadmill in our lab that has a belt for each foot, and occasionally we change the speeds of the belts independently to look at how the brain adapts to walking in this new pattern. We are doing this to learn about the brain while finding out if we can use this type of treadmill for rehabilitation of patients with damage to their brain."