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Engineering Grad Prepares NASA Spacecraft for Blast Off to Mars

By:    Published 11:31 am / November 22, 2011

When NASA launches its most advanced mobile robotic laboratory to search for life on Mars, a recent Boise State University graduate will play an integral role in making sure everything goes according to plan.

Dan Isla, a 2009 electrical engineering graduate, joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an electrical systems engineer shortly after graduation. He works on a test and launch operations team for the Mars Science Laboratory mission that will carry Curiosity, a rover with more scientific capability than any other sent to another planet. The one-ton rover is now sitting atop an Atlas V rocket awaiting liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Scheduled for a nearly two-year mission to Mars, Curiosity will launch around 10 a.m. EST on Nov. 26. For the most up-to-date information, click here.

For the past two years, Isla helped assemble the rover and performed the functional testing of the entire flight system to confirm the health and safety of the spacecraft. His specific role on the team was to send commands to the rover during testing and launch operations and to verify that the data being sent back is accurate. He also created a “spacecraft baseline test,” which was used to ensure every copper connection throughout the system was working properly. Notably, it is the final functional test run on the spacecraft while atop the rocket, certifying it is ready for the journey to Mars.

On the day of launch, Isla will work in the control room and conduct the final configuration of the spacecraft, as well as transition it to internal power on the rover batteries just prior to lift-off.

“One thing that I think is cool is that I got to work with the real hardware going to Mars and watched parts on a table become a fully functional rover ready to explore another planet,” Isla said. “When I was a child growing up in Boise I wanted to be an astronaut, and spacecraft engineering has really fulfilled that dream for me. I remember being inspired when I was younger, hearing about the early Mars missions and seeing the first images from another planet surface on the Internet. Today, it really is a dream come true to be an integral part of NASA’s Mars exploration program.”

At Boise State, Isla took research to new heights as the student leader of an engineering project conducted in NASA’s Microgravity University program. The project, which dealt with lunar surface traction concepts, helped NASA engineers anticipate challenges in designing better rovers for future manned missions to the moon. Isla was active in engineering student clubs and honor societies and was named the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Graduating Student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.