From COM to Mars: How an 80s Rocker’s Curiosity Landed Safely on the Red Planet

Adam Steltzner, who headed the mind-blowing engineering feat of landing a one-ton exploratory Rover mission on Mars last year, says it was his own innate curiosity about the shifting constellations that first led him to study astronomy at College of Marin.

He was in his early 20s, playing bass and drums in local bands when he looked up at the winter night sky and noticed that while he was inside jamming on stage, the Orion constellation had traveled across the sky. He was curious.

It was that simple curiosity, he says, that propelled him to face down his personal demons and pursue what became a driving ambition to learn.

“I didn’t know it then, but I was afraid,” Steltzner says. He hadn’t been inspired or confident enough initially to follow his curiosity.

“My father was a super, hypercritical perfectionist,” Steltzner says.

His father told him he wouldn’t amount to anything. But, Steltzner was drawn by the stellar mysteries and started college part-time.

“I remember it being quite awesome,” he says of his days as a COM student. “I was 21 when I surrendered to my curiosity and started to follow it,” he tweeted last year.

“This was a time when I chose how or where I moved depending on the coffee. It was all sort of slow.” He celebrated summer and winter solstice outside – from sunrise to sunset. Then, he landed in a physics course with Professor Stephen Prata.

“That class changed my life,” Steltzner says. “He was able to communicate and to demonstrate his glee at the understanding, or the potential of understanding, of the universe and that was infectious. I was able to connect with that within me. I just loved it. I just wanted more.”

Steltzner faced his fear of failure, and pushed on. A camaraderie among the science and math students buoyed his academic life.

“There was no judgment,” Steltzner says. “There was a celebration of what you did, what you committed to, and what you could do, but not a lot of comparison to what you should do. I learned how to apply myself emotionally so by the time I got to the physics courses I was a monster. I was a zealot. I was completely alive. I was intellectually fearless which made me effective as a student and eventually as an engineer.”

After three years, he transferred to UC-Davis to earn a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Applied Mechanics from California Institute of Technology in 1991 and a doctoral degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Madison in 1999.

“Really early on there I decided I wanted to become a professor at a community college. It was all sort of inspired at the College of Marin by the professors I met.”

Steltzner, who has been with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since 2001, has worked on several NASA missions over the years, including Galileo, Cassini, Champollion, Comet Nucleus Sample Return, Mars Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers. He was the Mechanical Systems Lead Engineer for Entry Descent and Landing for the Curiosity last year.

Known as “the Elvis guy” because of his pompadour and sideburns, Steltzner has earned numerous accolades for his work, including honors as a Top 10 Scientist for 2012 by Nature magazine and Space Technologist of the Year by the World Technology Network, which honors “the innovative work of the greatest likely long-term significance.” He was the CalTech Hellwig Fellow in structural engineering. An awardwinning teaching fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he is also the author of a chapter in Going to Mars: The Stories of the People Behind NASA’s Mars Missions Past, Present, and Future and has been interviewed numerous times and lectures throughout the world about technology, creativity, leadership, and the drama and meaning of space exploration. He also serves on the Academic Studio Advisory Council for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

Over the years, Steltzner has written his former physics professor to thank him for inspiring him to learn more. Prata remembers his former student’s enthusiasm.

“He was a student who sought to understand nature,” Prata says. “I appreciated those communications, for it’s nice to know that one’s work has contributed to such interesting consequences.”

Is life on Mars a possibility?

“I think so,” Steltzner says without hesitation. “We’ve had a couple of moments on this [Curiosity] mission where we’ve wondered if we are looking at signatures that could’ve been generated by life.”

It is one of the questions Steltzner hopes to help answer during the Mars Surface Mission scheduled for 2020. On the upcoming endeavor, he hopes to focus on the science of collecting contaminate-free samples from the planet. It is work that could illuminate that age-old mystery.

“There are signs that encourage us to think life might have been there in the past,” he says. “I think we’re seeing that every day. They don’t stand up to proof yet, but they are certainly encouraging.”

Steltzner is married and has two daughters. In recent years, he has returned to the community college venue to study welding at Pasadena City College, a skill that has helped him build hot rod vehicles to tour California deserts.