If it weren't for severe motion sickness, Dr. Ashley Stroupe might already have several space shuttle flights under her belt. The child of an aerospace engineer, Stroupe devoured all things space-related during her childhood. Her higher education path literally led to the stars; astronomy was her first choice as an undergraduate, but the solitude of that profession lost out to the lure of robotics, where she would have the opportunity to help build and operate spacecraft that might one day visit the planets she studied through telescopes.
Right before the Mars Exploration Rovers made history, Stroupe joined JPL, and what a time to join the ranks. Holiday excursions were cut short or non-existent and the lab simmered over from the heat of anticipation. Last-minute meetings to ensure all was well filled restless hours as the world prepared to focus on the dramatic rover landings.
While the rovers were getting their "land legs," Stroupe was getting used to working in an oversized sandbox. Deep in the corners of an aging building that was part of the original bones of JPL, toddler robots train for possible future missions. Intended to precede humans to Mars, these petite teams carry and integrate structural components, simulating remote habitat building.
"We want to send robots ahead of astronauts to build a safe habitat that's already there when they arrive," said Stroupe. "Particularly for Mars, if you have to wait six months for a rescue, you want to make sure it's safe when you go."
Giving robots the ability to build habitats and search for resources takes work. Rovers need a very specific set of instructions. "A robot doesn't make assumptions," Stroupe explained. "The real challenge is figuring out how to translate what we want it to do into step-by-step instructions, then run the commands and see what it does. It's what I imagine it would be like to watch a child take its first step or go off to school. You get personal satisfaction from having caused that."
Posted By: Brooke