When Marc Allen was a kid his parents would always buy him space toys, and space station and space shuttle stuff in particular. When he was a student at Traverse City West Senior High School he was fascinated by planets, space, and the prospect of life in galaxies far, far away. When he graduated from West Senior High, he earned degrees in computer science and space system engineering from the University of Michigan.
Now, the 29-year-old Allen lives in Pasadena, Calif., and works for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the team that safely got the Mars rover Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet, where it will spend the next few years looking for signs of life and trying to find out if Mars was once more Earth-like.
One of Allen's primary responsibilities is developing software that helped interpret radar readings during the craft's landing. "The software basically talks to the radar and says, 'How far from the surface are you?' and the software communicates back to Earth," Allen said.
In the world of space exploration and science for the sake of science, the JPL is the big leagues and Curiosity is as prestigious as it gets.
Allen and his parents both attribute his success in part to his education, first at West and then Michigan, and meeting kindred spirts along the way.
"Marc got involved with other kids like him at West, and he really blossomed," Allen's father, Bruce, said.
Now that computers and ipads, texts, tweets and twitters are so much a part of everyday life, it's hard to remember that kids who do science weren't always as accepted as they are now.
Today, however — thanks in large part to the space station and the shuttle and the various probe missions to Mars, Saturn and Jupiter over the years — TC West science teacher David Kirby's unit on space in his physics class is "the one kids are most fascinated by. They just can't get enough of it — black holes and exploding universes."
Marc Allen said the seven minutes of radio silence as Curiosity neared the surface of Mars and then confirmation that it had landed safely were "indescribable."
"The last two minutes of the landing are the most difficult and most risky. You are watching it happen in real time, the data coming down, and you are like, 'Wow, this is actually going to happen.'"
This is the future and it will be built by smart kids, engaged teachers and good schools. To see how our past investment in education has paid off, check out http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html.