By Linda Kor
As the Mars Science Laboratory made a successful landing on Martian soil this week, a resounding cheer went up throughout the world. The landing of the rover Curiosity brought together years of work by scien-tists and engineers, and gave the world a first-hand look at the landscape of the planet, whose distance from Earth can range from 36 million to over 250 million miles.
Among the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists and engineers who made this event come to fruition is a name familiar to many in Holbrook. Aaron Yazzie, a 2004 graduate of Hol-brook High School, is a mechanical engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. He played a signifi-cant role in the development of the Curiosity’s ability to collect samples from the planet.
Yazzie always knew that he wanted to be a part of something special, but even he had no idea what that would mean. “I always had a feeling that I would be able to do big things. I dreamt of going from high school and on to a good college in Arizona, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there,” recalled Yazzie.
It wasn’t until he began going to summer programs where he met college recruiters that his dreams be-gan to grow. “I was encouraged to apply for more universities, so when I applied at Northern Arizona Uni-versity and University of Arizona in Tucson, I decided to try for one more, Stanford University,” he said. Yazzie was accepted at all three and it was from that point that his life changed completely.
His mother, Shirley Yazzie, lives in Holbrook and teaches mathematics at HHS. “Since the sixth grade Aaron knew what he wanted in life. When he went to a NASA junior apprentice program in Michigan one summer, he got a lot of attention. When he was accepted at Stanford, I cried it was so overwhelming. I was so proud of him,” she said.
As excited as Yazzie was at being accepted to Stanford, the change in environment took some getting used to.
“It was a huge leap for me. There were so many things I hadn’t experienced because I lived in a small town; I hadn’t even been to the ballet before. Suddenly I’m at this very expensive school and everything was right there to do,” he said.
Yazzie called the academic pace “shocking” as he made the transition from high school to university life, noting, “It was a struggle for me, something I wasn’t really prepared for, but I pushed forward and was able to do it.”
He now resides in Pasadena, Calif., just a 10-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. “I like it a lot, but I didn’t think I would. It’s a big city with lots of cars and traffic, things you just don’t deal with in Hol-brook or on the Navajo Reservation,” he said.
After graduating from Stanford in 2008, Yazzie was immediately hired by JPL as a mechanical engineer and for the past year has been working on the Mars Science Laboratory. His job was to design equipment that would allow the Curiosity to collect the surface samples needed for scientific analysis.
The design includes a turret at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm that holds five devices, including a per-cussive drill for collecting powdered samples from rock interiors, a dust removal brush device, another de-vice called a Mars Hand Lens Imager, an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, and a multi-purpose device named Collection and Handling for In-situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA). The CHIMRA includes a soil scoop and a set of chambers for sieving, sorting and portioning samples of rock powder or soil for deliv-ery to analytical instruments. The purpose of these instruments is to determine by the samples collected whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes.
“It’s incredible. I didn’t really quite understand the historic significance until I saw how the world re-acted; I was very overwhelmed. It was a very risky endeavor; a lot had to go perfect and it did,” stated Yaz-zie. Without that perfect landing, his hard work and the work of his team would have never been put to use.
Although the landing may seem like a mission accomplished, for Yazzie the mission has really just be-gun. He explained that while other rovers have landed on Mars, the Curiosity has capabilities that the others never had. “Now we can get to places that we’ve never gone before. The laboratory can carry more instru-ments and collect more samples, and now that the landing was successful, our work begins,” he said.
The project is set to continue for two years, but the last two rovers’ missions lasted six, so they are hop-ing for a similar outcome with the Curiosity, according to Yazzie.
Although his head may be on another planet, Yazzie still holds a soft spot in his heart for his hometown in Arizona.
“I tell people that I come from a town with just two stoplights and they can’t believe it. I feel very fortu-nate to have grown up there, and that I can go back and recognize people. It’s something that doesn’t happen in a large city. I have a lot of appreciation for where I’ve come from,” he said.
As for advice to kids growing up in communities such as Holbrook, Yazzie has this to say: “My upbring-ing has given me a unique perspective on life. Some people are here because it was expected of them; for me this has all been a gift and I’m very appreciative. If someone reading this will be inspired to go on to a better college or a prestigious job, I hope they will.”
By Linda Kor