From Michigan to Mars

Rod Meloni recalls growing up as space-age kid, his lasting enthusiasm today

Author: Rod Meloni, Local 4 Business Editor, @RodMeloni
Published On: Aug 09 2012 02:21:20 PM EDT   Updated On: Aug 06 2012 07:06:13 PM EDT
Fans cheer for Mars landing
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -

Rod Meloni - more 4 your money I was a space age kid.

As a little shaver, when John Glenn first orbited the Earth, I watched the TV coverage with equal parts awe and excitement.

My little brother Ned and I ran around the neighborhood imagining we were astronauts in green, one-piece jump suits my parents bought for us at the store. They were all the rage back then. I recall the patch over the left breast pocket was Glenn’s famous radio response: Everything is "A-OK." I have extremely fond memories of watching the inspiring victories and the gut-wrenching defeats of the Apollo program. I watched the first lunar landing on a black and white TV screen smaller than the computer screen you are reading this with in a Mount Dessert Island, Maine campground office with dozens of strangers who could not believe we were watching a man walk on the moon.

Read more: Curiosity rover has Michigan ties

I remember feeling patriotic and proud, spellbound as I was with a sense of wonder, man, Americans were walking on the moon!

Later I remember being scared sick for the Apollo 13 astronauts over the four heroic days it took to get those astronauts, on that ill fated mission, home safely. I’ll admit to being more than a little excited years later when I had the opportunity to interview Apollo 13’s lead astronaut James Lovell. I’ve interviewed presidents, covered the pope, interviewed every brand of celebrity there is and tend to be bored. While those interviews might seem exhilarating, the truth is, they tend not to live up to the hype. That was definitely not the case speaking with Commander Lovell. That memory I will bring to my grave.

The point here is the Apollo program’s TVn coverage was day-long, wall-to-wall programming you could not wait to see. When the Space Shuttle program’s victories and defeats came along, the television coverage ended up pared back. The Challenger’s demise was not run on the networks live at the time; it wasn’t exciting enough until after it blew up over the Atlantic that chilly Florida day. I lived in Broward County back then and when I found about the disaster I looked out my home’s front door to see the eerie contrails in person. I remember thinking how sad it was we had lost our enthusiasm for the space program until something tragic happened.

Today, so many years later, there is an unmanned rover rolling around on Mars. It’s not a first, but to me it is just as exciting and perhaps more important than simply getting there. I would love to sit and watch day long, wall to wall coverage. It’s a very different time.

Mars rover

So imagine my reaction today when I was able to stand at a University of Michigan Space Research Lab work bench where five circuit boards used in the Curiosity Mars rover were built and tested. Electrical engineer Ken Arnett and a team of others he works with built Curiosity’s power supply and flight computer and the brains for the monitoring and measuring equipment.

He told me, “This is one of the reasons why I love my job!”

VIEW: U-M multimedia site about Curiosity

That gear will test the soil giving us a window into Mars’ history. Arnett is clearly proud of the work he and the team did.

He told me, "I get to work on things that are unique. I’ve built stuff that went to Saturn, Mercury, stuff on Mars; on the surface we have an instrument that landed on Titan which is a moon of Saturn.”

Now that’s a great job! Sadly, I was unaware of the fact we have that much hardware in those places. We, as a nation, seem to have lost our verve for the wonders of space exploration and the exceptional American know-how that is behind these historic adventures. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the electronics are both analog and digital and took four years to design, build, test and complete.

Two U of M scientists also are very much a part of the Curiosity program; Dr. Nilton O. Renno and Sushil K Atreya. They are managing much of the science behind the exploration of the Mars surface. Dr. Renno spent a couple of years of class time researching the affects of Mars dust on the Curiosity rover itself. One of the students in that class was Shannon Curry. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in space physics. She was walking Monday as if she were in space -- she was that impressed and excited at the Rube Goldberg style of engineering that allowed Curiosity to land successfully.

She, of all people, knows that the “seven minutes of terror” everyone involved talked about were certainly just that because there is so much that could have gone wrong. That it didn’t give her job prospects a nice boost.

WATCH: Curiosity's 7 minutes of terror

She told me today, "This was really, really exciting; just the idea that the launch was successful and that the rover actually made it. They used a sky crane to lower this. That in itself is a huge technical feat.”

She joined 150 U of M students and scientists to watch the Curiosity Scientists in California live on television at 1:30am. They all cheered this achievement because they know first hand how much work went into this program and what it takes to make history.

Shannon added, "The fact that everybody was so excited about this was really overwhelming actually watching them at the Jet Propulsion laboratory. A lot of them were actually in tears. This was a big moment for all scientists.”

It was indeed.

The TV world is a lot different than my distant childhood. Still, we get to see stories about this and ponder American exceptionalism as it plays out before our eyes.

This day is historic in my book, and like Ken Arnett, covering stories like this is another reason why I love my job!