Adam Steltzner Awarded Inaugural Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship Written 16 October 2014

By Duane Hyland, AAIA Communications (2008-2017)

On Tuesday, 30 September, Adam Steltzner, Research and Design Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, delivered the inaugural Yvonne C. Brill Lecture to a standing-room-only crowd in the lecture hall of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, DC.

Established by AIAA and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering honors the memory and technical achievements of Yvonne C. Brill, an AIAA Honorary Fellow, and a pioneer in the development of satellite propulsion systems, especially her invention of the Hydrazine ResistoJet that is now the standard for all satellite propulsion systems.

Steltzner was selected to give the inaugural lecture in recognition of his leadership in the development of the now world-famous “Sky Crane” maneuver that placed the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover (Curiosity) on Mars in 2012. The maneuver, involving a descent through the Martian atmosphere followed by a gentle lowering of the rover to the planet’s surface, answered the question: “Just how do you place an object the size of a mini-van on another planet’s surface without destroying it in the process?” Curiosity’s successful delivery stands as one of the iconic moments in our nation’s spacefaring history.

Steltzner used the lecture to take the audience through the entire Sky Crane development program, from the initial thinking that led to the conclusion that it would be the best way to place Curiosity on Mars, through years of testing, to the actual deployment mission. From discussing the angles of descent, to developing the radar systems and giving them the ability to take clear readings of the topography even in the dustiest of locales, to trying to find out if they could “cook” the rover by placing massive amounts of dust on its body and seeing how the onboard systems handled heat dispersion, to the actual physics involved in the delivery process, Steltzner gave a in-depth review. At times technical, especially when discussing the radar and propulsion systems, and at times humorous, while relating some of the funnier moments in the test phases of the program, the lecture was thoroughly engaging. Two of the funnier moments that Steltzner discussed was finding “a Viking-era propulsion system under a desk,” while the team was searching for viable systems, to using an F-18 to test the radar systems – “when all you could do is strap the radar to the wing, point the plane straight down, quickly get the data point and hope the pilot pulled up.” Steltzner noted that the hardest part of the entire process was the realization that you couldn’t really test Sky Crane on Earth in actual delivery conditions; you had to wait and see what happened during the actual landing on Mars. Steltzner reported that the wait for confirmation of the rover’s landing, in actuality nine minutes, seemed like “nine years.”

Steltzner closed the lecture by sharing the six things that the Sky Crane development program had taught him: “First, it’s not the thing you are talking about that will ‘get’ you; it’s the thing you are not talking about. You need to figure out ‘what am I not talking about?’ Second, try to engage in mind-altering behavior,” a statement that drew confused looks from the audience, leading Steltzner to clarify, “Tell me what you think will break and why, and sometimes just go out to eat and try not to think about it, until something pops in your head.” Third, “keep trying to find the thing you are not talking about.” Fourth, “listen to all of your people very carefully and listen to all of the review boards – their input is vital.” Fifth, “find the ‘gems’ in your ideas, they will be there, hidden and perhaps poorly transmitted, but they are there.” And, six: “Find the thing you aren’t talking about.” The final point Steltzner made was that the Sky Crane system is now the standard for all future rover deliveries to Mars.

In addition to the Brill Lectureship, Steltzner’s other honors include the 2014 International Academy of Astronautics’ Astronautics Engineer Award; NASA’s 2013 Outstanding Leadership Medal; Smithsonian magazine’s 2013 American Ingenuity Award for Technology; the AIAA Foundation’s 2013 Award for Excellence; and World Technology Network’s 2012 Space Technologist of the Year award. Additionally, Steltzner’s communication skills have been credited with reviving the public’s interest in the American space program, stimulating excitement about the future of space exploration, and inspiring the next generation of aerospace engineers to pursue even greater technological innovations. Steltzner’s entire lecture, as well as the speeches honoring Brill’s memory, can be viewed by visiting: