Last night, as I watched footage of the new Mars rover, Curiosity, I developed quite a crush on Adam Steltzner. He's the NASA engineer who lead Curiosity's Entry, Descent, and Landing team. But did you know he also used to be a bass player in Bay Area bands, nearly flunked out of school, and initially passed on college to be a rockstar?
Steltzner's path to becoming team leader for this new Mars lander was hardly direct. Unlike many successful engineers, he struggled at school. An elementary school principal told him he wasn't very bright. His high school experience seemed to confirm that.
"I passed my geometry class the second time with an F plus, because the teacher just didn't want to see me again," he says.
His father told him he'd never amount to anything but a ditch digger, a remark he still carries with him years later.
Maybe that's because school wasn't a priority, particularly with the distractions of the flower-power era in the Bay Area.
He had a ’69 Cadillac with a bed in the back. He was living a life of, as he says, "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." But after looking at the stars and noticing Orion one night, on the way home from a show, Steltzner was inspired. He enrolled in a physics course at a local community college. Then, he put a fucking magical robot on Mars.
So the next time your parents flip you shit about playing music, you tell them about Steltzner, just one more freakishly smart musician who can join the growing list of rock and roll geniuses, which includes Brian May of Queen (PhD in astrophysics), Greg Graffin of Bad Religion (PhD in zoology, teaches at Cornell University, and has a new species of bird named after him), Milo Aukerman of the Descendents (PhD in biochemistry), and Mira Aroyo of Ladytron (PhD in molecular genetics). And there are plenty more where that came from.