Dig Baton Rouge

From the Red Stick to the Red Planet

By Nick BeJeaux

On their final day as undergraduates, LSU’s summer class of 2014 will be bid farewell by distinguished alumnus Keith Comeaux, the man who guided the rover Curiosity to the surface of the planet Mars.

Commencement is scheduled for Aug. 8, and Comeaux hopes his speech is more memorable than the one at his graduation from LSU in December 1989.

“Honestly, I don’t remember who spoke at mine, but I did go to the Spring Commencement to hear Bill Clinton speak,” he said. “One thing I do remember though is there were a lot of champagne corks popping off.”

Tapping into his personal experiences, Comeaux hopes he will inspire the graduates to move forward through life, but not hesitate to take a side road every once in a while.

“I’d like to share examples with the students and encourage them to follow their curiosity [pun not intended] and take opportunities as they come,” he said. “Plans often don’t work. I always wanted to be an astronaut. That didn’t work out, but I still found my way to Mars.”

Comeaux doesn’t style himself as a public speaker and admits that while he is excited, he expects the experience will be a little strange for him.

“Plans often don’t work. I always wanted to be an astronaut. That didn’t work out, but I still found my way to Mars.”

“I’m really excited and honored to speak. I was very surprised when they ask me to,” he said. “Hopefully I can pass on some wisdom to these students, though I don’t really consider myself a public speaker; it’s a little surreal.”

When Comeaux, who currently resides in Redondo Beach, Calif., was growing up in and around Baton Rouge, he was fascinated with airplanes.

“There’s lots of airspace around the South, I guess,” he said. “We lived right between the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the National Naval Air Museum in Pensacola. My parents and I would visit them in the summer. Both of these places and others were huge inspirations to me. I knew before I applied at LSU that I wanted to go into aerospace engineering.”

Today, LSU offers a minor in Aerospace Engineering, but in Comeaux’s day dual majoring in mechanical engineering and physics with a few aerospace classes under his belt was enough to land him a graduate school spot at Stanford – where he earned his MS and Ph.D in Aeronautics and Astronautics – before securing the job with NASA. Comeaux eventually became the flight director for the Mars Rover Curiosity’s launch on November 26, 2011. Aside from making the trip to Mars, Curiosity made history for the length of its mission. but mostly for the rather unorthodox landing mechanism used to drop the one-ton machine on the surface.
Watching NASA’s video detailing the “Sky Crane” System on YouTube (search Seven Minutes of Terror: The Challenges of Getting to Mars) from the comfort of a home or office is nerve wracking enough. For Comeaux and his team, the numerous things that could have gone wrong coupled with a seven-minute communications delay nearly drove them insane.

“A colleague of mine summed it up pretty well. He said we were rationally confident, but emotionally a wreck,” said Comeaux. “We were confident in our design, but there were so many single points of failure: the design, Martian weather – stuff like that. The whole system was crazy ­ because it was – but it worked.”

Not only did it work, but exceeded expectations. On June 24, 2014, Curiosity’s mission was indefinitely extended after finding that Mars’ surface was once conducive to microbial life. The rover’s design will be copied (with some improvements) for a 2020 mission to Mars with the expressed purpose of finding signs of life – past, present or future.

“After the success for the first mission, Congress immediately backed another mission as soon as we could get it off the ground,” said Comeaux. “This one will be specifically for life detection. It will cache samples that we will later collect for study. How we will eventually collect them is still being discussed, but I can’t see it happening without several launches from Earth and from Mars.”

Experimental technology aimed at easing human space exploration will also be tested on the mission, namely a device that could be described as a mini terraforming device.

“What it does is pull in carbon dioxide [almost 96 percent of Mars’ atmosphere is CO2] from the atmosphere and create oxygen,” said Comeaux. “Right now it’s nothing that would turn the whole atmosphere breathable, but it may eventually be possible to create environments for explorers to live or create rocket fuel.”

Comeaux also shared his thoughts on the future of space exploration, as more and more private companies are dipping their rockets into what was once government and military territory.

“I think the airline industry gives us a clue to how that will play out,” he said. “Airplanes used to be owned solely by militaries and now they are most commonly used for public travel. I think we’re still a long way off for average people to be able to go to space cheaply, but I’m excited for those prospects.”

“One thing to look out for in the future will be asteroid mining. Once we figure out how to mitigate the cost of launching from Earth and getting back to it, mining in the asteroid belt will be huge. We’ve actually made progress on that because one way of escaping Earth’s gravity is building in space. The International Space station proves we can do that.”

For regular updates on the pending mission to Mars and other NASA ventures into the vastness of space, visit mars.jpl.nasa.gov

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