NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Sandi Gardner is proud of the U.S. space mission to Mars — as only a mother can be — after seeing her son, Nate, help to make the recent landing there a success.
While North Kingstown is a long, long way from Mars, she watched eagerly as the mission showed that a critical technology for the heat shield, which her son helped to test the reliability of, protected the Mars Perseverance rover during launch and landing.
“Nate really loves his work, and to have been able to participate in such a monumental event is pretty amazing,” she said.
Nate, who works at NASA in Virginia and earned both his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Rhode Island, agreed. He explained his role this week during an interview with The Independent.
It counts among the most important he’s done since he began working eight years ago with the space agency, he said.
As routine testing on the heat shield occurred, NASA scientists noted some anomalies in the workings of the shield. Experts were needed for further testing and Gardner, who works for NASA subcontractor Analytical Services and Materials, Inc., was assigned to oversee portions of the additional testing.
He said his job as a lead project engineer focused on ensuring that this necessary heat shield worked as designed.
It needed to survive the launch and later the intense heat and pressure when the rover entered the Mars atmosphere and descended on the planet, he said.
“We had only one shot to get this right. There would be no do-overs because of the timing of Mars being close to earth and the mission’s schedule dependent on that part,” Gardner said.
For his part, Nate brought skills as an authority in the area of photogrammetry.
It is the study of both science and technology when linking physical objects and the environment and then recording, measuring and interpreting photographic images and patterns of electromagnetic radiant imagery.
For a critical piece of the mission hardware that is more than 130 million miles away, this kind of technology is important. There wouldn’t be a second space craft going out to examine a problem first-hand.
This meant, he said, “We needed to ensure we don’t see anything we’re not expecting that could cause failure because you only have one shot at it.” It also included using data to create or verify other assumptions for how things should work, he added,
While involvement in the project began almost two years ago and included many testing scenarios, the real success came when rover landed.
“It really didn’t hit me until I saw things come to fruition,” Nate, 36, said. “It was very humbling and exciting at the same time.”
A Curious Student
He is just the kind of detailed mechanical and aerospace engineer to take on this task, says Arun Shukla, his former mentor and advisor at URI. The two worked together during Gardner’s doctoral work on projects for the U.S. Navy.
The professor said he recruited Nate to work in his lab after seeing his proficiency as an undergraduate at URI. Nate and his wife, Emily, married now for about three and a half years ago, also met at the university.
“He was very dedicated and hard-working student with the navy projects we did,” Shukla said, noting that some of Gardner’s published work is still cited in scientific journals. He recently had a conversation with some United Kingdom scientists about research Gardner did in blast mitigation.
“These were complex, experimental materials, and research and not easy to accomplish,” Shukla added.
Gardner’s mother, Sandi, said she and his father, Randy, saw these traits develop long ago for examining detailed mechanical operations.
“Even as a very young boy, Nate had an intense curiosity for how things were put together and what made them work,” she said.
“In elementary school he told us he wanted to invent things, then in 7th grade he announced he loved math and was going to do something with it when he grew up,» she added.
All those come into play in both mechanical engineering, precise detail and ensuring that a spaceship can get to Mars.
“He loved detail, enjoyed a good challenge, and has something of a photographic memory,” she said.