16 August 2010

"Going to Mars with Peter"

Our brains have a propensity toward seeing patterns and making connections. We also have hardwired within us a desire not just to understand things, but to do so quickly (likely a useful trait when we needed to understand that a boulder rolling down the hill was probably going to keep on doing so, and we better get out of the way!). I think the combination of these two aspects of our physiology attribute a great deal toward our belief in the supernatural. Specifically, we see patterns in the events and world around us that we don't understand and the easiest explanation is that, of course, these patterns were made by someone, just like every car and every chair has a maker. Since we don't see the maker around us, we attribute the patterns to an unseen, "godly" maker. That doesn't mean that this is the correct explanation, but it is certainly one that has been satisfactory for most of us for most of our history.

I may not ascribe to that view of the origin of patterns around us, but that doesn't stop my brain from searching for them. And this week, circumstances aligned in such a way that I found a pleasant pattern in my own life.

I am embarking over the next few months on the final chapter in my System Engineering master's degree program at Johns Hopkins. The capstone project, which will consume my extracurricular hours until December, is the development of an aerial robot to survey the Valles Marineris on Mars. I find it fitting that 8 years ago, during the summer after my senior year in high school, it was a space settlement design competition that I participated in, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, that first got me interested in engineering. The goal then was to design a Martian outpost that could support hundreds or thousands of settlers. Our project leader was a devoted and enthusiastic classmate named Peter (the type of kid who wore a star trek outfit to school, though for his sake, it was during Halloween season). My friend, Robert Yao, and I, being somewhat more interested in going to Florida than staying up all night writing requirements for an imaginary extraterrestrial apartment complex, endearingly joked that we were "Going to Mars with Peter."

In preparation for that trip all those years ago, I read Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars" and was at once fascinated at the idea of a manned mission to the Red Planet. Ever since, I've found the plans to return to the moon about as exciting as a road trip to Cleveland. As I bone up on Mars facts now, I'll be much more concerned with the impact of eroding dust and the low atmospheric pressure on a flying robot than on methods for terraforming the planet so that the 3014 World Cup could be played on the (no longer) red planet.

Something about coming full circle in my education fills me with a sense of completeness and pleasant, mild satisfaction. Now, if I wasn't human, I would probably say something more logical, like "well, really it would only be 'full circle' if the settlement competition had occurred during my first semester at school." But I am human and this seems a pretty innocuous occasion to indulge myself, so, yeah, I'll say it, isn't it amazing how so often life just happens to work out like this?!


chris said...

Sweet dude! Eventually I want to work on manned spaceflight too. I can't believe you already get to work on a real Mars project!

chris said...

Btw, Allison always says how Peter was a great guy and a great leader on the team, and how he didn't get a fair shake by everyone who wasn't on that Mars team.

Jeff Shepley said...

Chris, don't get too jealous. The project is to demonstrate the skills I've learned as part of the degree program; it isn't a "real Mars project." It is more of a role-play.

If it was a real Mars project, we'd need about 7 years to complete it, where as we have 16 weeks to complete the Capstone Project. Did I mention no Thesis requirement for an SysEng MS in this JHU program?

As regarding Peter, I agree completely with Allison's assessment. He was a good leader for the project, and as I've found in the intervening years, good leaders are hard to find. He was genuinely enthusiastic and wanted to share that with the rest of the team. Wherever Peter is, and I hope it is at NASA or some NASA contractor, I wish him well.

Aaron Ahlquist said...


Wonderful post, keep it up. I love your subtle sense of humor, which is slightly dry yet witty. I'm going to follow you sir, I hope you'll do the same for me.