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Curiosity Approaching Mars, Artist's Concept

The Most Powerful Word on U-Idaho Alum’s Resume is Curiosity

By Donna Emert

The Mars Rover, Curiosity, concluded its 352-million-mile journey with an equally historic, intricately engineered, white-knuckle landing on the surface of Mars Aug. 5, 2012.

The landing, dubbed "seven minutes of terror" by engineers, began with entry through the top of the planet's atmosphere at an angle calculated to achieve aerodynamic lift. A guided-entry system then used jet thrusters to slow and direct the craft. Curiosity then deployed a supersonic parachute to slow it further. Finally, a giant "sky crane" lowered it the last mile to the surface.

"We are all just so happy that it all went so well," says NASA engineer and University of Idaho alumnus Matt Braley. "So many things could have gone wrong during the descent that we all just held our breath listening to the Mission Control Center tick off the milestones of entry, descent and landing. As each one passed we knew we had a better chance of success, and knowing that Mars still has a better win record than we do, we all feared the unknown could have had a detrimental affect on the spacecraft."

When the craft touched down at the conclusion of that process — immediately hailed as "a miracle of engineering" — the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was ecstatic.

Video from NASA JPL

"We erupted in cheers and hugs," says Braley. "We knew that we had been a little lucky and a lot of "What Ifs" had been correctly accounted for in the software and hardware design. Only due to the dedication and expertise of a whole lot of people could such a task be accomplished. I was so humbled to be a part of this moment. I hope everyone is as happy as I am to again be roving on Mars with a NASA spacecraft."

Braley is the data collection instrumentation engineer for the Curiosity and a 2005 U-Idaho College of Engineering alumnus. He assembled and designed much of the instrumentation for data collection on the Curiosity.

The California/Idaho/Mars Connection

Braley grew up in Southern California near the NASA JPL in Pasadena, and as a teenager, dreamed of working at NASA -- putting a craft into orbit. He served eight years in the U.S. Air Force as a technician servicing high performance jet fighters before coming to U-Idaho to earn a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering (2005).

Braley won an internship at JPL in the summer of 2004 and in 2005 earned an Alumni Award for Excellence, plus a full three-year, all-expenses paid NASA fellowship to graduate school at U-Idaho. In spring 2005, just a few days before his graduation, NASA recruiters visited him on the Moscow campus and convinced him to come to come to work at the JPL.

"Without the opportunity to attend college and to be included in a NASA internship with JPL, I would have never been a part of such a wonderful mission," says Braley.

U-Idaho electrical engineering professor Herb Hess has worked with NASA on research projects that have included electric power generation on silicon chips and lithium micro-batteries. Hess served as Braley’s faculty adviser while he was a student at the university. The University’s EPSCoR office, at the direction of then vice president for research Charles Hatch, arranged for Hess to work with Braley on the professor’s NASA projects.

Through that partnership, NASA sent electronics that Braley designed for orbit while he was still a U-Idaho student.

"In terms of student success stories, they just don’t get any better than that."

"Matt is a genius with computerized instrumentation data collection," says Hess. "NASA recruited him immediately upon graduation to address a big challenge. They assured him that he would have something in orbit within two years and assigned him to the Mars Rover. When I visited him a couple years later, he showed me the entire instrument data collection system he had assembled, working in his lab. On Aug. 5, his work was on the surface of Mars. In terms of student success stories, they just don’t get any better than that."

Curiosity at Work on Mars (Artist's Concept)
Image Credit: