South Colonie alumnus playing a part in NASA’s Perseverance Rover


CCHS alumnus Sean O'Brien and the first assembled sealing station installed to the sample collection system mounting structure.
CCHS alumnus Sean O’Brien (Class of 2013) and the first assembled sealing station installed to the sample collection system mounting structure for the Mars Rover.

On Thursday, February 18 at approximately 3:55 p.m. EST the Perseverance Mars Rover landed on the planet Mars. Obviously, this is not your run-of-the-mill news item or daily occurrence. In addition, did you know that a former South Colonie CSD student is playing a role in this project? Sean O’Brien, a  Class of 2009 graduate, is a contractor for NASA and has built a component of the device to gather materials from the planet, while keeping it secure for research purposes back on Earth. The main purpose of the historical expedition is to find signs of ancient life on Mars, collect samples and conduct extensive research on the planet.

As you can imagine, Mr. O’Brien’s schedule is stretched thin as he continues his day-to-day research and operations. Normally, we look to fill-in his background for our district readers, but with a special and historical event like this one, we felt it’s best to let Mr. O’Brien share his story in today’s Q&A.

Congratulations! How does it feel to make history?

Mr. O'Brien sitting underneath the rover installing new parts.
Mr. O’Brien sitting underneath the rover installing new parts.

Thank you! Honestly, it feels pretty surreal. I worked on the rover for a little over four years and after a while this crazy exciting project somehow just became everyday life. So, when I was sitting at home watching the landing it felt more like I was just watching footage from an old landing, especially since I’ve been off the project for so long. Everything I worked on is hidden inside the river right now, so I expect this will all really hit me when I see the first sample tube get dropped off on the surface, since it will have been my mechanism and sequence of motions that will have sealed the tube and dropped it out of the rover; so I’ll have to get back to you then.

How does a launch like this happen? What needs to occur for this type of launch to happen?

People, lots and lots of smart, dedicated, and passionate people, plus a lot of their time. The people in government who push for the funding the project, the scientists and chief engineers who figure out what kind of science we can gather and how we can gather it, the engineers like me who turn all those ideas and wishes into a functional reality. There’s also the machine shops and vendors who create all the individual components, and then the technicians who suffer through all the nitpicking of engineers (like myself) to actually put it all together; and all this is meaningless without the people who did all the same for the rocket that got us to Mars. 

What role did you play in designing your piece of the Perseverance Mars Rover? How did you become involved with NASA?

Sample tube being sealed in the Sealing Station on Mars Rover.
Sample tube being sealed in the Sealing Station on Mars Rover.

I actually played a bunch of different roles throughout the project, but my work was all part of the Sample Collection System primarily on the system that hermetically seals the rock cores inside the sample tubes. As a mechanical engineer assigned to a specific mechanism, the day to day work changed as the project progressed; starting with testing out early design ideas at the beginning and ending with integrating a fully tested and assembled mechanism into the rover.

I wish I had some interesting story about getting a job with NASA, but I just applied for an internship during grad school. I filled out the application during my first semester, had a half hour phone interview during second semester finals week, and then I started working a couple months later. 

How does the technology work and how long will the mission last?

Sample collection system assembled for testing (upside down)
Sample collection system assembled for testing (upside down)

So the interesting thing about most of the rover technology is the fact that not much of it is a brand new concept. When you’re working on a multi-billion-dollar flagship mission, which can only launch every two years, you stick with what has been proven or you have to spend a lot of time, effort, and money to prove it out yourself. So the rover, along with the sampling system, really works like any other robotic system; a series of electric motors actuating moving mechanisms all controlled by a central computer. The exception to this is for experimental science instruments like MOXIE and the Ingenuity helicopter, which won’t impact the larger mission if failure were to occur, so new and creative ideas are both often required and considered less of a risk. 

I’d say the three big things that set the rover apart from other engineering work are: the materials we use, the level of cleanliness we were required to hold, and the fact that the whole thing is powered by a big lump of radioactive material. We had to build something that’s light enough to get into space, strong enough to handle launch and landing forces, functions flawlessly on Earth and Mars (which have different gravity), and it has to survive and function in temperatures ranging from -135 Celsius to 70 Celsius; so your standard automotive sheet metal and axle grease won’t do the trick. As for cleanliness, the whole point of this mission is to understand the geological history of Mars and search for signs of potential ancient life (bio signatures) so it would cause some problems if we got all the way to the surface just to contaminate our samples with some fur from roommate’s cat. And the lump of radioactive material speaks for itself;  not that I would be allowed to talk more about it if I even knew how it worked.

The prime mission is planned to last one Mars year (equals two Earth years) and by then all of the primary mission goals should be complete and all of the core samples should be ready for the upcoming sample return missions. However, if Perseverance is anything like previous rovers, she should be cruising around the surface of Mars sending us new photos and data far longer than that.

How did South Colonie steer you towards this career pathway? Any advice for students looking to achieve their own dreams?

South Colonie gave me the chance to take classes to figure out what I did and didn’t want to do and gave me a basic understanding of what was out there. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any of the project lead the way classes until my senior year, but I think it was the class that made me decide engineering was the correct path for me.

I have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree in astronautical engineering, I’ve built hardware that’s on a different planet, I’m not working on a drill for astronauts to use on the moon, and I’m bad at math; I didn’t take any AP classes in high school and I struggled through my college math classes. So I think the best bit of advice I can give is that you don’t need to be the best at what you want to do or exceptional in every aspect of it, figure out how you can contribute to something you’re excited about and pursue it. And like my dad always told me: “take the initiative and be persistent”. So far that has allowed me to persevere (sorry I feel like I’m obligated to use at least one pun).

Looking to stay up-to-date on the Perseverance Mars Rover? Follow the mission here or access this link for additional news and updates.