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Machinists to the Stars
JPL Machinist
JPL Machinist works on Mars '03 rover.

It's the middle of the night at JPL, and the usual dozens of deer are on their nightly foraging rounds across the campus. Mars is up. So is the Moon. And so are nine machinists in the lab's high-precision fabrication shop, working the second shift that ends between midnight and 3 a.m. They are part of the round-the-clock team turning out odd-shaped pieces of metal that will become robots destined for Mars.

Night shift supervisor Gary Keel holds in his hand an improbable mix of geometric shapes that somehow meld smoothly together. Finely machined out a solid, 25-pound brick of titanium, the part looks like a mechanical dog's leg as dreamed up by a computer. In a way, it is.

Only this is a leg for a rover of a different kind - it's a wheel strut for one of the two twin Mars Exploration Rovers now being built for launch in 2003. This part is one of thousands that will comprise the rovers.

Mathematical Complexity

The part displays a mathematical complexity made possible only through the speedy calculations of computer-aided design. Rendering it into a real part from a drawing falls to Keel and his colleagues in the fabrication shop.

Artist's concept of 2003 Mars Exploration Rover
Artist's concept of 2003 Mars Exploration Rover

About eighty percent of the rover parts are of a more routine sort that will be made by machinists outside of JPL. Some parts, like the launch vehicle adapter that connects the spacecraft to the rocket, are huge - the size of a round banquet table. Others are smaller than the diameter of a pencil. Large or small, the most exotic pieces stay at JPL with staff machinists, now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the crunch time of the rovers' assembly and test phase.

"We Get the 'Oh No!' Parts"

"We get the 'Oh No!' parts" says Keel. "The 'Nobody Else Wants to Touch This' parts." Engineers often want to keep the most complicated and challenging machining in-house, he says. That way, they can check the progress with the machinists who are bringing the new parts into being, and have an opportunity to make adjustments if needed. The relationship is known as "concurrent machining and engineering."

Mike Mangano, the Mars Exploration Rover mission's mechanical systems project element manager, explains the value of being able to communicate with the machinists on site: "You can do the design, you can put it on paper, but until you start to actually make it, you don't know what kinds of problems you're going to run into."

  "Configurationally Challenged" >>

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Machinists to the Stars
    Machinists to the Stars
    "Configurationally Challenged"
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