“There are many reasons for going to Mars – practical, spiritual and political. But the most important reason is that while people are still excited by the promise of space exploration, they are frustrated by it, because they can see that we’re not actually exploring anymore. People aren’t excited by International Space Station hardware delivery missions to low-Earth orbit, or by scientific flights, regardless of how useful they are. People want a more noble and ambitious space program. Give the public Mars, and public support for the space program will fly like a rocket.”

– Science writer Stuart Atkinson

PABLO – On an office desk deep in the Salish Kootenai College campus sits a globe that, on closer inspection, seems seriously flawed.

An ocean appears to have covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, and continents have been squished together below it.

The blue, it turns out, represents not water but areas of low elevation and the globe is not of our world.

It’s Mars.

Tim Olson and his SKC students don’t just study what’s known about Mars. They’re heavily involved in uncovering new information about the planet through the NASA project called the Mars Science Laboratory.

MSL – also known as “Curiosity” – is the next rover bound for Mars.

“We can’t put a geologist on the surface yet,” says Olson, chairman of SKC’s division of sciences. “This is the next-best thing.”


Olson is one of 20 scientists, called co-investigators, involved in the construction and operation of three camera systems that will be part of the rover, which is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2011.

They’ll be at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when that happens, and Olson and two of his students will be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., when Curiosity lands on Mars in 2012.

There, they’ll help operate the camera systems for three months. Back home in Pablo, two more SKC students will assist in analyzing the imagery being received.

It’s all very cool stuff for the 1,100-student tribal college, the first tribal college in the nation to offer a four-year engineering degree, in computer engineering.

“The disadvantage of being a small school is we have to focus our efforts,” says Olson, in his 15th year at SKC. “We don’t have the number of faculty or buildings to do everything. The benefit is that the things we can do, we can get the students involved from the get-go. That’s easier for us to do with our small size.”

Students here don’t just work on the Mars Science Lab. They also build cameras NASA uses on high-altitude balloons launched to study ozone holes over the poles, and test instruments that will be sent up on satellites.

“There’s a lot of science that can be done 23 miles up, at 120,000 feet,” Olson says. “Once a year, NASA lets colleges and universities compete to put instruments on the balloon, and we have a prototype of an astronomical camera. The neat thing is it’s student-focused, and they get to build it, test it and launch it.”


The Mars Science Lab project began years ago, and has the potential to operate until 2020 or beyond.

“No student here will see that through from beginning to end,” Olson says. “This, they will.”

Sean Shriner, a senior from St. Ignatius, was the lead designer on the balloon camera.

Kody Ensley, a junior from Polson who hopes to get a summer internship at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, headed an SKC team that built a miniature rover for training purposes as part of a robotics challenge competition sponsored by NASA.

“The first one we built taught us a lot,” Ensley says. “It was much heavier than we anticipated.”

“That’s why it’s in the basement,” Shriner adds.

The second one they kept much simpler. While it seems like little more than a remote-controlled toy car, it’s anything but. Three cameras mounted on the tiny rover, one of them infrared, allow students to drive it while not being physically present with it – same as the Earth-bound scientists who steer the real rovers around Mars.

“Mars is so far away, it takes time to transmit images from the cameras,” Olson explains. “It’s quite different from the moon, which is close enough you can look on your display and drive one in real time. On Mars, it takes 10 minutes to an hour to receive the image. You can’t sit there with a joystick and drive it. It’s a lot of slow, steady plotting, and it takes getting used to.”


The SKC student team spent a week at the Johnson Space Center putting their miniature rover through the paces on surfaces designed to simulate both the dusty, rocky ground on Mars, and the sharp igneous rocks of the moon.

The competition didn’t award prizes for first, second or third place. “NASA had rigorous requirements that the teams either met or didn’t, and we did,” Olson says.

Ensley, meantime, hopes to build another miniature rover before he graduates.

“I want a more sophisticated turning system, and a more advanced suspension system,” he says. “It’s supposed to be a training platform for working with a real rover.”

A Minnesota native, Olson earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Minnesota, and his doctorate at Montana State University.

He spent five years at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, where his research involved using nuclear power to propel spacecraft to Mars, which could cut the seven-month travel time in half.

That was during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, who set 2016 as a target date for putting a human on Mars. When the Clinton administration took over, they had “their own vision” for Mars and it didn’t include that, so Olson began considering a return to teaching.

Salish Kootenai College, he says, presented a unique opportunity.

“SKC is such an interesting place, and it has such talented students,” Olson says. The college was just 17 years old when he arrived, and it’s given Olson the chance to “be creative in building new degree programs. That’s been very exciting.”

Personally, Olson doesn’t see people going to Mars anytime before 2030.

“And for a single country to do it would be too costly,” Olson says. “I think it’s likely to happen under the ‘Star Trek’ model, where the people on Earth collectively go to Mars – a partnership of the United State with countries in Europe, Russia, perhaps Japan and China.”

When it happens, don’t be surprised if people educated right here on this Pablo campus are involved in helping mankind get there.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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