Page 25 - BusinessWest April 28, 2021
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 Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing by one of the EDL (entry, descent, landing) cameras he installed on the rover.
school transcript, he knew HCC “would actually give me a chance,” he said. “HCC was there to give people a second chance.”
Once enrolled, encouraged by his professors, he buckled down. He believes he had a better academic experience at HCC than he would have had he attended a four-year program right out of high school.
“The classes were small, and the teachers
actually cared about you,” he said. “I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics profes- sors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”
It was not easy. He worked two jobs while a full-time HCC stu- dent, sometimes studying while logging third shift at a gas station.
“I was willing to work at it,” he said, “but there were people who were willing to support me, and that’s what I needed.”
Gruel graduated with honors and an associate degree in engi- neering, an accomplishment he remains proud of to this day. “This was something I had done for myself, and I had earned it.”
Up, Up, and Away
It also earned him acceptance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.,
where he found he had a real affinity for engi- neering. And here is where his humility rears its head again.
“A lot of things went my way,” he said. “In addition to working hard, there’s a lot of luck involved in where we end up in our lives.”
In his senior year at RPI, he learned that two friends who also had gone to HCC were doing co-op semesters in the field, working at engineer- ing jobs. He decided to pursue one, landing a co-op placement at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, a federally funded
research and design center managed by Caltech, with the vast majority of its funding and contract work coming from NASA.
Gruel thought the experience would spice up his résumé by adding that he worked on a team designing interplanetary spacecraft. Little did he know it would lead to his life’s work.
After eight months, he went back to RPI to fin- ish school and graduate. Once on the job market, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was among the job offers he received, and though he always imag- ined settling down in New England, he found himself changing those plans when such an enticing job.
“The challenge of JPL massively dwarfed the benefits of being in New England,” he said.
Gruel’s role in the last two Mars missions was to lead the team known as ATLO (“I’m the boss man,” he said cheerfully.) ATLO stands for Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations. Essen- tially, the team takes all the parts for the rover and its spacecraft — tens of thousands of them — and assembles them.
“We get delivered to us a bunch of intricate Legos,” is how Gruel put it.
Next the team conducts endless tests to simu- late launch, touchdown, and the harsh condi- tions on the ground. “So when it’s cruising from Earth to Mars, it works as designed,” he noted.
To simulate launch, the machine goes into a large vibe table; to mimic the Mars environment, it goes into a vacuum chamber that gets as cold as the red planet itself.
From mission start to landing, it takes about
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